Column: the io pen
Loose Wire — The Pen Is Mightier Than The Computer, Too: Check out the io Personal Digital Pen: It’s a pen that can store everything you write and transfer it to your computer; And you don’t have to lug a hand-held device along with you for it to work
Well, to be exact it’s an io Personal Digital Pen from Logitech. But it really does look and feel like a pen. It writes like a pen, with real ink, on real paper. But it also stores everything you write, and will transfer it all to your computer when you return it to its cradle. I have to say it’s pretty neat, and may mark the beginning of Something Useful.
The nub of it all is a simple problem: Despite typing, despite software that interprets your scrawl on a hand-held organizer, despite Microsoft’s Tablet PC [http://www.microsoft.com/tabletpc], there remains a disconnect between scribbles on a notepad and the computer. I’ve reviewed Seiko Instruments’ SmartPad and InkLink products [http://www.siibusinessproducts.com/], which do a good job of letting you store drawings digitally, but both require some sort of computer, whether it’s a laptop or a hand-held device, which limits what you can do with them.
The technology behind the io pen comes from a Swedish company called Anoto AB. It’s been promising for some time to launch a pen that remembers what you write, but Logitech is the first to bring something to market. [Sony Ericsson Mobile Communications offers a similar looking product called a ChatPen, which also uses Anoto’s technology, but it’s geared to transferring your jottings to the world via hand-phone, rather than your computer.]
Anoto’s technology works like this: The pen writes normally, using normal ballpoint pen ink. But while you’re writing, a tiny camera inside the pen is also taking 100 snapshots per second of what you’re doing, mapping your writing via a patchwork of minute dots printed on the paper. All this information — the movement of your pen on the paper, basically — is then stored digitally inside the pen, whether you’re writing longhand, scribbling notes or drawing complex diagrams. You can store up to 40 pages worth of doodles in the pen’s memory. As far as you’re concerned, you’re just using a normal pen.
It’s only when you drop the pen into its PC-connected cradle that the fun begins. Special software on your PC will figure out what you’ve done, and begin to download any documents you’ve written since the last time it was there. Depending on whether you’ve ticked certain boxes on the special notepad, it can also tell whether the document is destined to be an e-mail, a “to do” task, or a diagram to be inserted into a word-processing document. Once the documents are downloaded you can view them as thumbnails, print them out or convert them to other formats.
It’s a neat and simple solution to the problem of storing, sharing and retrieving handwritten notes, as well as for handling diagrams, pictures and other nontext doodling. Unlike the Tablet PC you don’t have to carry around a laptop; unlike the Seiko InkLink and SmartPad, you don’t have to carry around a hand-held organizer or other device. Just whip out the pen and the special paper and you’re off.
Of course, there are downsides. Those of you hoping to see your spidery writing automatically converted to digital text are going to be disappointed: The best the io pen can manage is to offer a slimmed down handwriting recognition which, with some training, can convert letters entered into special boxes into text for e-mail addresses, document names, etc. [This doesn’t work terribly well, and to me isn’t a selling point.] Others might find the pen a tad bulky: It looks more like a cigar than a pen, though it fits snugly into the hand. It’s also pricey: around $200 for the pen, a pad, and some refills, but expect to pay up to $25 for replacement sets of pads.
I think it’s a great product because it doesn’t try to fix something that’s not broken: It doesn’t force you to work differently — walking around with a screen strapped to your arm, or carting along extra bits and pieces. The pen is light and works like a normal pen if you need it to, while the special notepads look and feel like, well, notepads. The only strange looks will be from people who are curious why you’re writing with a cigar.
It also has potential elsewhere. FedEx, for example, is introducing a version of the pen so that customers can fill out forms by hand — instead of punching letters into cumbersome devices. Once that data is digital more or less anything can be done with it — transferring it wirelessly to a central computer, for example, or via a hand-phone. Doctors could transmit their prescriptions direct to pharmacies, reducing fraud; policemen could send their reports back to the station, reducing paperwork; lunchtime brainstorming sessions could easily be shared with the folks back in the office. It’s not that we can’t do all this right now, of course, but given that most people seem happier with a pen and paper than with a hand-held device, I think Anoto’s technology and Logitech’s pen are a realistic marriage of convenience. Have a cigar, boys.