In the summer before college, Dad took me to a big discount store for government employees we used before there was anything like a Walmart. The goal of this shopping trip was to buy me a portable tape recorder the size of a small suitcase – I think it was a Wollensak – that I could take to college in my freshman year and use to record in-class lectures. I could then play them back later in my dorm when I was studying.
This turned out to be one of those buys that sounds like a good idea, especially to parents envisioning a future scholar in the family and to the kid himself who thinks he will actually take the time to listen to the same boring lecture twice.
If I had held on to the tape recorder over the years, it would be in mint condition because I don’t think I ever used it. It would be the star of the Antique Road Show.
I was thinking about this old Wollensak one afternoon this week when I was at an electronics discount house and saw what today’s dad would probably think was a good idea for his college-bound son:
A smartpen. Officially, the Pulse Smartpen.
Part ballpoint, part microphone, part tape recorder, and part computer, this seems a worthy entry into all things new. And it doesn’t even come from Apple.
The secret’s in the glow
The smartpen is an interesting concept, if no other reason than it combines high-tech digital communication thinking with one of the oldest forms of communication: the pen, previously the quill, previously the hunk of charcoal that Cro-Magnon shamans used to draw pictures on cave walls 30,000 years ago. Although in place of the charcoal tip, there’s a laser light pulse aglow, recording what you write.
In between the very old and very new, there’s a touch of Maxwell Smart’s shoe phone in the smartpen or even James Bond utilizing the latest brainchild of that crafty gadget man known only as Q. Clicking this pen three times will not result in a massive time-delayed explosion, however, as Bond’s pen once did.
The latest iteration of the writing stick was developed by a company called Livescribe which touts its company and product this way:
“Livescribe is fundamentally changing the way people capture, access and share information with pen and paper. Founded in 2007,Livescribe has developed a breakthrough low-cost mobile computing platform which includes the award-winning Pulse smartpen, dot paper, smartpen applications, Livescribe Desktop software, Livescribe Online Community, and development tools. Since its launch in April 2008, the Pulse smartpen has won multiple awards, including Popular Science’s Best of What’s New 2008, Popular Mechanic’s 2008 Breakthrough Award, and MacWorld’s Best of Show in 2009.”
Links audio to writing
In short, what the smartpen does is to record and link audio to what you write so that you can play back the recording later or even playback your handwritten notes on your computer. Or you tap it on a special part of the paper and it records like an audio tape recorder. The Livescribe software allows you to search your handwritten notes for specific words to find exactly what
you’re looking for, and it allows you to share those notes and audio online for others to see. It even lets you transform your note, drawing and recordings into Flash movies.
Whew! A lot to ask from a ballpoint pen.
So far, reviews of the Pulse Smartpen have been pretty good. Laptop Magazine (www.laptopmag.com) tested it out and assessed it this way:
“During a meeting we simply began writing on the paper. There are no controls to start and stop the digital capture of handwriting; it begins when you power on the pen and press it to the paper. It stops capturing when you stop writing. However, if you want to record the audio as well, you have to press the Record circle on the bottom of the paper; the recording timer will pop up on the pen’s screen. After activating it, we no longer felt the pressure to write down every word spoken, which was a relief.”
“Three audio-sensitivity settings are available: Conference Room, Lecture hall, and Automatic. Using the Conference mode, the Pulse did a great job picking up the presentation made in our company’s conference room. However, we did hear the scraping of our pen against the pages in the background of the recordings. It wasn’t too prominent and we could still make out the spoken words.
“The pen’s scraping noises went away when we opted to use the Pulse’s included 3D recording headset, which plugs into the top of the pen. The headset functions like a normal pair of headphones, and on the back is a pair of binaural mics that enable 3D audio recording. If you are wearing the headset, the pen records from both mics, resulting in a surround-sound recording.
“When we played back the audio recorded from the headset it sounded just like were in the meeting again; when a person to the right of where we were sitting spoke, we could hear them in our right earbud. The surround sound didn’t transfer over to the 3D recording on the computer.”
The Pulse Smartpen comes in 2GB and 4GB sizes, ranging from about $150 to $190, maybe less depending on where you buy it. Both are available from stores ranging from Target to Best Buy. Like any pen you have to replace the ink cartridges when they run dry, and you can buy a pack of four for $6.
Sean Connery’s Bond would have found one of these things indispensible. But that bomb application would have been essential.