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This Pen Is a Real Pal

Photonics Spectra
Feb 2008
Michael A. Greenwood

Will the venerable ballpoint pen be going the way of the quill and inkwell?

The Livescribe smartpen, slated for commercial release early this year, boasts capabilities that even the most stylish writing implement from Montblanc could never hope to achieve.


The smartpen synchronizes notes and lectures and allows any portion of a talk to be repeated when the device is tapped onto the appropriate place on the paper. Andy Van Schaack (standing) is seeking to extend the technology to aid the blind. Courtesy of Vanderbilt University.

When the device is used in conjunction with regular paper printed with almost invisible microdots, it allows instant and full audio recall from lectures, meetings or even everyday conversations, with a simple tap on the lecture notes. Microphones built into the smartpen record conversations, and a processor digitizes the handwriting. Ink and audio are synchronized so that later (say when a college lecture is over and you have absolutely no idea what was discussed) the paper can be tapped, and the smartpen will provide instant audio replay of the lecture from the exact moment that the note was written. This is accomplished by a tiny camera inside the smartpen’s tip that recognizes minute dot patterns printed on the paper, much like a bar-code scanner reads a number. Every page and line in the dot notebook has a different pattern.

Notes and audio also can be uploaded to a PC where they can be replayed, saved or e-mailed (one person can takes notes for an entire class). The system, developed by Livescribe Inc. of Oakland, Calif., also allows the user to pause the conversation, speed it up, slow it down or search for a particular word. The device is slightly larger than a standard fountain pen. One potential application is to help blind students, particularly in science and math courses where so much of the instruction is given in the form of diagrams and equations.

Andy Van Schaack, a lecturer at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of Education and Human Development in Nashville, Tenn., and also Livescribe’s senior science adviser, has received a $300,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to tailor the technology to students with special needs. He is looking at applying the smartpen to a special plastic film that creates raised-line drawings, providing blind students with a tactile diagram coupled with replayable audio.

camerasinvisible microdotsLighter SideMicrophones

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