The Latest Computer Technology Can Slip Behind Your Ear

A do-anything pen may change the face of computing

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At the DEMO conference in Palm Desert, California yesterday, the audience of 500-some technology veterans watched in rapt fascination as a company called Livescribe introduced its brilliant invention: a pen.

Well, not just a pen—a computer that looks like a pen. The Livescribe Pulse Smartpen does have ink and it makes lines on paper, but it also records a digital file of whatever you write—both text and sketches—by using an infrared camera to read a code of tiny, nearly invisible gray dots on the paper. (It can also read bar codes.) To make it work, you need to either buy a recycled paper notepad from Livescribe, or roll your own by downloading a graphics file that prints on most laser printers. (This part of the technology isn’t from Livescribe, but from a company called Anoto that also licenses it to other companies like LeapFrog, where Livescribe’s CEO used to work.)

It also records the sound around you and links it to what you were writing at the time. Tap the pen to that text again, it reads the little dots, and you get an audio playback from that time. As a journalist with lousy handwriting and no shorthand skills, I could use that. Just write an outline of what someone is saying in an interview, and tap on the notes to hear again what the person said.

That in itself would be very cool, but the Livescribe folks have bigger plans that drift into the range of world domination. (The CEO Jim Marggraff told me that he plans to sell one billion of the $150 pens in the coming 10 years.) Here are some other things the pen can do:

Create 3D audio files
The Livescribe headphones include microphones, so you can record the sound exactly how and when it hits each of your ears. Play it back through any headphones, and you get the same effect as if you were hearing sounds around you—like someone laughing of to your right or mosquito buzzing on the left. (Livescibe originally added that feature so you could “focus” on the voice of someone speaking on a recording from a noisy room.)

Create flash animations.
Whatever you write or draw can be captured as a flash movie. Play it back and you see the drawings take form on your screen—like those old Looney Tunes cartoons when Donald duck talks to the animator as he draws (or erases) the landscapes around him. Click on parts of the text in the animation and launch any linked items such as Web pages, audio files or videos.

Access commentary in a book
The pen works for writing as well as reading. As an example, Livescribe showed me a Bible, printed on the special paper, where you can tap on words to get footnote-like commentary or hear pronunciations of the bizarre Old Testament names.

Write an email
The pattern of dots on every sheet of paper is unique. (Livescribe says the Anoto system provides enough values to cover several continents without repeating a number.) So if you write on a specific piece of paper, the pen can use the dots not only to figure out what you wrote, but to figure out where you wrote it. Scratch a note on the back of someone’s business card, for example, hook the pen up to your computer, and the software sends an email of your note to the card owner. Scratch a rant out on the back page of a magazine and you can automatically send a letter to the editor.

Livescribe Pulse goes on sale in mid-March, starting at $150. Look for more about it on the paper pages of PopSci.