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Pulse Smartpen: write, record and convert to editable text! October 30, 2009

Posted by pacejmiller in On Writing, Technology.
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smartpen

The Pulse Smartpen from Livescribe and the special 'dot' paper notepad

I feel almost obligated to share this nugget with my readers.

Recently, following a technology session at work, my wife went and bought me this thing called the Livescribe Pulse Smartpen.  This slightly fatter than normal, but still relatively lightweight pen, blew my world.

I once posted an article on this blog in which pondered whether I was more effective as a writer writing (ie pen on paper) or typing.  I concluded that I was more creative and came up with better material when writing on paper (at least for my novel), but the speed with which I could pump out words on the keyboard shifted the balance in favour of typing.

Well, the Pulse Smartpen may shift that balance once more.

Using some sort of hi-tech infra-red camera technology, state of the art recording capabilities and special ‘dot paper’ (virtually invisible to the naked eye), the pen allows the user to record sounds while you write, and effortlessly links the audio to the written material.  And more importantly for writers, you can transfer the handwritten notes into editable text on the computer (with a special program).

In other words, I can utilise the pen to take advantage of my improved creativity when writing with pen on paper, while being able to simultaneously save time by converting the writing to editable text in my novel writing program without having to type it up all over again!  What it also means is that I can carry my Livescribe notepad (containing the special paper) wherever I go and write whenever I want, and not feel like I am wasting time because I’d have to type it all up when I get home.

As GOB Bluth (from Arrested Development) once blurted out loud in response to a talking magazine: “I didn’t even know this kind of technology existed!”

Recording function

This is actually quite simple.  For instance, if I’m taking verbal instructions from a client or attending a lecture, I just have to turn on the pen, tap the ‘record’ button at the bottom of the paper and write away.  If I miss something, never fear.  All I have to do later is tap my pen on the page at the spot where I struggled to keep up, and the audio recording will start playing from the exact point in time I wrote those words (or drew those pictures).

And if you download a program called Livescribe Desktop from the website, you can load the written pages and the audio onto your computer for long-term storage (using a USB dock which you place the pen in, and which also acts as a battery recharger).  If you register the pen, you’ll even get some free web storage so you can upload your notes and audio for access on other computers.

This function has already come in very handy at work, especially during long conference calls and when receiving instructions from a busy superior who might not have the patience to keep repeating him/herself.  Gold!

smartpen2

This gives you a fair idea of the size of the pen

Converting to editable text

Note this is actually not a part of the Pulse Smartpen’s package.  The program which converts handwriting to editable text is an additional add-on program which you can download for free as a 30-day trial, but costs around US$30 to buy.  However, for me it was well worth it.

The way it works is this: after uploading the written pages (which don’t have to be accompanied by audio) to Livescribe Desktop, if you have the relevant program installed, you can click on a little button that converts the handwriting to editable text automatically.  This text can then be moved to your preferred word processing program.  And voila, it’s as though you typed it all up in the first place.

So far I’ve written about 8 or 9 pages of my novel on the train on my way to and from work, and it has been converted into text and cut and paste straight into NewNovelist.  No more excuses for not being able to progress it every day!

Downside

As with most things that sound too good to be true, the Pulse Smartpen is too, to a certain extent.

First of all, it’s not cheap, so if you don’t utilise it fully it’s not really worth it.  Depending on the storage size of the pen (1G, 2G or 4G), you’re looking at around US$150-200+, and most likely substantially more if you are buying it from retailers outside the US (eg A$329 for a 2G pen according to the Australian website).

Secondly, you need that special ‘dot paper’ to get the pen to work.  My pen came with a 200-page notepad (100 pages, double-sided), and once that runs out you have to buy new ones.  However, you can, if you have access to a colour laser printer, print out your own paper in small amounts at a time.  I do have access to one at work, but the multiple firewalls are preventing me from printing them at the moment (mental note to find a way around it).

A connected issue is the special ink cartridge that the pen requires.  I am quite certain that you’ll need to buy those too when the ink runs out, and the cartridges themselves are rather small, so I imagine that would happen relatively often, adding a further expense.

Thirdly, the conversion to editable text is nowhere near perfect.  The conversion process can be slow (one page at a time) and if you have unruly handwriting, the conversions can lead to some crazy results.  You can try to mitigate that to some extent by inserting special words in the custom dictionary and specify auto-conversions for certain words that keep getting converted wrong.  While it does save you a lot of time, it doesn’t save you as much time as you wish it could.  Put it this way – I would be very surprised if there isn’t a solid handful of manual edits and format changes required for each page of writing I convert.

Verdict

I’m usually pretty retarded when it comes to technological advancements, so I’m clueless as to whether there are similar products or products that achieve the same results out there on the market.  With that in mind, I personally think the Pulse Smartpen is awesome, for both work and writing purposes.

As I have an extraordinarily short attention span, the ability to record important conversations (especially surreptitiously) is invaluable at work.  I guess it allows me to be that little bit lazier but it’s a safety net I’d much rather have than not.

Equally important to me is the pen’s potential to convert hand-written pages to typed font.  While the conversion is far from seamless, it allows me to write in places and circumstances I wouldn’t usually be able to.  For a person that can’t seem to find any time to write, this makes the Pulse Smartpen a worthwhile investment.

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Comments»

1. Johanna Nilsson - March 16, 2010

Pace,

Thank you for sharing this! Great for me to know. I am currious to know – after a few months of using it – would you change anything of the above?

Many thanks,
Johanna

pacejmiller - March 16, 2010

Well, I think how useful the pen is is ultimately up to the user. Since the beginning, I haven’t used it as much as I would like to, though that is partially due to a change in circumstances (ie I quit my job). The text conversion thingy is also not as good as I originally thought – not sure if it is my writing (which I don’t think is all that messy) but there are a lot of edits to be made whenever I convert to editable text, which is kinda annoying. That said, it is good in a way because it is almost like rewriting your first draft!

2. Interview with a moron « About Writing – The Personal Blog of Pace J Miller - September 2, 2010

[…] a complete lost case.  I was lucky because I didn’t really to take notes, as I had my handy Pulse Smartpen ready to record every word that was said.  I can’t see how anyone can transcribe […]


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