I’ve been thinking a lot about the future of Pen computing, i’ll have more to sat about in in the future. In the meantime, one of the most interesting products I’ve been using for the last is year is a digital pen but one that works quite differently from the devices I’ve used in the past. You see, one of the most compelling uses of a TabletPC was when you added in the OneNote application. In addition to taking notes, OneNote could also record meetings or lectures and link the audio text with your notes. Its cool and works really well. The downside is you needed a TabletPC and OneNote.
A company called LiveScribe introduced a new digital pen offering a year ago called the Pulse that mimics this trick and more. It’s pen computing but not tied to the computer. LiveScribes leadership has a history of these devices, their founder designed the popular childrens offering for Leapster. I spent some time with the system last night and I can say, it works really well. The pen is well designed with a nice OLED display to let you know whats going on. Interaction is entirely with printed materials on special paper. Click on a printed calculator, and the pen displays the results. Click on a Piano keyboard (or draw one) and the pen plays. Click record and the pen records the spoken word and links it to whatever you write. The system works and it works well.
In order to work its magic, like most devices in this category, the Pulse needs special paper printed with microscopic dots so the camera built in the pen can track whats going on and record it. The unit ships with a large spiral notebook and I been using a Moleskin like notebook that was a little more professional in appearance. This is the probably the systems greatest weakness. No special paper, no digital magic. LiveScribe plans on releasing a template so you can laser print your own paper but at the moment you need to order from them. Worse, each notebook is sequentially numbered and you need to keep using the next notebook in the series or the pen gets confused.
While theres plans longer term for more pen applications to emerge (the unit comes with a demo of a translation program, the Piano player app and the calculator) theres still a lot of value in the core experience. The idea of adding the flexibility of digital note taking along with audio capture without the need of a PC at the time of capture is compelling. The 1 or 2gb of memory on the different models offers more than enough storage. In addition to storing notes on your PC, you can also sign up for a LiveScribe account to share your stuff on the web. LiveScribe offers 250mb of storage of each user, again, adequate enough for most users needs.
While there have been other devices with similar function, none have the small form factor and tight integration with the written and spoken word that LiveScribe has and that makes for a compelling experience. If LiveScribe can further evolve the system and fix some of the glitches that still plague the system, theres a potential mass market product here. While pen computing has failed to capture the current consumer, perhaps the answer to digital pens lies in paper and ink.
In the meantime, this is the system I’m recommending for folks who want a pen computing experience.