Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The Smartest Pen in the Class

Remember the Reese's Peanut Butter Cup commercial? "You got your chocolate in my peanut butter!" - "You got your peanut butter on my chocolate!" If Livescribe, the company that invented the Pulse smartpen, were to resurrect this ad campaign, it might sound something like this: "You got your ballpoint pen in my digital voice recorder!" - "You got your digital voice recorder in my pen!" Encased in a sleek, aluminum body with an anodized finish, it kinda feels like it could have been designed by the boys at Apple. It's a unique device and literally exists in a category all its own. Judge it as a pen, and it writes as well as any ballpoint, but it's no MontBlanc. Judge it as a digital voice recorder, and it plays back hours of high quality audio as well as you'd expect any voice recorder to do -- but come on- you can get a decent voice recorder for a third of the price. But here's the deal: Judge it as a smartpen, and you have a device that has defined its own category. If your pen had a brain, it would behave like this pen. It's like having a computer in a pen. The Pulse smartpen is by no means a replacement for your PC. You can't surf the net or send and receive e-mails - yet... Ultimately, what you have is the world's coolest pen ever made. Period. It's a device that will link whatever is written to what is spoken. In a word: whoa.
From prehistoric cave walls to the modern tablet PC, the human need for self-expression through drawing and writing has endured. However, paper and pen usage presents serious limitations in an increasingly digital world. Paper documents are static and difficult to share broadly without the use of flat bed scanners. Written notes can be easily lost or damaged. They suffer an inherent lack of connectivity; despite how rich the content on a piece of paper is, it is physically bound and limited. What’s missing is a way to maximize the freedom of expression and rich context afforded by pen and paper while delivering the connectivity, archiving system and “capture” capability of a computer. Enter, the Pulse smartpen by Livescribe, a device that attempts to bridge the gap between traditional pen-and-paper and 21st Century digital technology.
Users can write something (anything) down on Livescribe's proprietary micro-dot paper, and the pen will record its movement and link it to whatever sound it was recording at that precise moment. If I had only had this pen during my college Chemistry class, I might have actually passed the first time -- My professor talked so fast I couldn't keep up! With the Pulse smartpen, students can rest assured that no matter how much (or little) notes they take, they can still take the entire lecture home with them. 
Livescribe dot paper is regular paper printed with a unique pattern of tiny micro-dots. Livescribe’s unique patented dot-positioning system enables the Pulse smartpen to precisely track everything it writes on paper. Livescribe offers a variety of dot paper products, including college-sized notebooks, journals, and note pads. Customers can also print their own dot paper using certified laser-jet printers. In addition, Livescribe Desktop allows you to digitally transfer your notes and recordings from your Pulse smartpen to your PC or Mac. It's especially fun to watch your notes animate when you play back your recordings.
One of the Pulse smartpen's "wow-factor" features is itspiano and rhythm app. You literally draw vertical and horizontal bars on micro-dot paper, and the piano you just drew will behave like a tiny piano. Tap the "keys" and you can make melodies and then add an accompanying drum track. I also like the English to Spanish dictionary. Simply write a word in English (or vice versa), tap it, and it translates it into Spanish. This app is available in the Livescribe Online Store.
Right now, in the online store, there are currently 64 unique applications available. In the spirit of  Apple's App Store for iPod touch and iPhone, and most recently, iPad, most apps are about one to three bucks, such as games like Blackjack and Hangman. Some are free, like "Classical Music Snippets." With a few taps of your smartpen, you can listen to short snippets of the most famous moments from a selection of classical tunes and learn interesting facts about each masterpiece, or test your classical music knowledge with the Music Quiz. The one exception to the relatively inexpensive app line up is an app designed to help kids study the Torah for their Bar or Bat Mitzah, called "Magic Yad." You use it with Torah passages printed on Livescribe's micro-dot paper. This app costs $119.
But for all its bells and whistles, this is a device that shines brightest when its in the hand of a student with a longwinded teacher. Students can have unlimited access to their teacher's instruction any time and anywhere. The Pulse smartpen is not for elementary students whose teachers assign a lot of group projects or organize cooperative learning environments. Therefore, I recommend it to Jr High students on up. Of course, a case can be made that the Pulse smartpen has its place in elementary schools, as well. For example, each day, as a sixth grade teacher, I assign one student the task of "notetaker." It's a great way to motivate students to take notes, and a fantastic way to build interest in note taking, because kids simply love the novelty of getting to write with the Pulse smartpen. Furthermore, English language learners can speed up, slow down, or replay a lecture's audio to more effectively develop both oral and written skills.
The Pulse smartpen is useful in meetings, too. I recently took it with me in a business meeting, and recorded the entire discussion. I only cared about a few minutes of the content, which happened to be near the end of the meeting. Thanks to this innovative solution, I was able to "tap" on the my hand-written notes at the precise part of the meeting I wanted to hear back. The pen began to play back the audio from that exact moment and I was able to clarify an important point in the conversation.
Users can upload their "pencasts" online with the Livescribe Community for everyone to see, hear, and play. Pencasts are like "podcasts" (only since they're recorded with the Pulse smartpen, they're dubbed "pencasts").  You can share your notes, drawings, and recordings online as Flash movies or PDF files with a vibrant online community of people who upload their own audio recordings, linked with their written notes. For example, at a recent Comic-Con, (Annual Comic Book Convention in New York) some attendees interview popular comic book artists, but instead of merely asking questions, the interviewer simply hands the artist a piece of the special Livescribe paper, presses "record," and asks the artist questions while he or she sketches his or her favorite, or trademarked, character. When you watch/listen to the interview unfold online, you hear the conversation while you actually watch exactly what the artist was drawing as he or she was talking. Because each penstroke links with the sound, it makes for a compelling visual and auditory experience.
Livescribe has developed a full Java-based development environment for professional developers to write their own smartpen application code using the Livescribe APIs, which became available in Q2 2009. Over 5,000 developers have signed up to write apps for the store, so look for more apps in the future. The SDK includes an Eclipse-based integrated development environment (IDE) with custom plug-ins, a suite of APIs, sample code and documentation.
Where can you get one?
2GB (Titanium)  $149.95
4GB (Titanium) $169.95
4GB Pro Pack: (Black) $229.95 Includes a matching desktop Pro Charging Cradle. Also included are a premium leather case to protect your Pulse smarten and a download code for a full version of MyScript for Livescribe transcription software.

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