Pen Computing Is Still About the Pen


I’ve always loved the idea of pens that work with your computer, either transcribing our hand-written notes, or faithfully reproducing our drawings on our computer, but the promise has always dwarfed the reality. Is LiveScribe different?

LiveScribe, launched at last week’s D conference, differs from previous digital pens in several ways: instead of merely trying to capture what you write, it captures what it hears, and is able to link what is written with what is recorded. Tap on a word you’ve written and it will jump to that part of the recording. Write something and have the pen translate it into Japanese or Swedish [sic].

All of this sounds amazing. It’s the sort of thing that has the potential for revolutionizing the way we work. Its inventor, Jim Marggraff, says “we can see this changing the world.” Even my colleague Walt Mossberg got so excited about it, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, he “was so determined to have the scoop on the pen, and to unveil it at his conference, Marggraff said, that [New Yorker’s Ken] Auletta (who was writing a profile of Mossberg and in the room when Marggraff was giving a demo) was not allowed to write about it.” Walt doesn’t get excited about stuff very often.

But what I find interesting is how hard it has been to get the pen– or paper-based computing thing to where we are now. LiveScribe, for example, is the vision of Marggraff, but also incorporates a lot of technology that came before. He himself was the inventor of the LeapPad (1999), “essentially a cross between a talking book and an educational videogame console,” in the words of a WIRED profile of Marggraff from 2005. It made LeapFrog, the company behind it, the fastest growing company in history.

Then Marggraff came up with the Fly, a kid’s version of LiveScribe, which used technology provided by Sweden–based Anoto, the company that developed the technology behind other pen– or paper-based computing systems, including Logitech’s own io Pen

By then the company’s fortunes had taken a serious dive, so a lot was riding on the Fly. Oddly, and I can’t find an explanation for this, Marggraff then quit the company and joined Anoto (before the WIRED article had actually hit the streets). A year later Marggraff again left to form LiveScribe, although Anoto remains a partner of LiveScribe, according to this press release. (Anoto helps develop and market the pen in return for cash and royalties. Hence the Swedish translation, I guess.)

So while there may seem to be a buzz about this product (and there should be; it’s got some great features) it’s actually just the latest offering in a series of innovations that, at least for the adult/professional market, has dazzled more than it has actually won over. For some reason pens aren’t as exciting to users as the idea of pens that do more. Walt may be excited by the product, and so am I. But I’ve learned that’s not always enough: journalists (well, me) have been excited by earlier incarnations of the digital pen and they don’t seem to have caught on either.

Why? I think it’s a few factors. Part of it is that all these products seem too fiddly, or at least require a change of habit. Another is Dependability: we need to know they’ll always work or we won’t trust them to do the job alone (recording interviews and writing notes are the sort of things you don’t want to mess up.) Thirdly, it’s because we’re weird about our pens: We either have pens we love and wouldn’t part with, or else we buy a particular brand we like by the truckload and lose them. In either case it’s because we like the way they write, and the ioPen and its cousins all failed to understand that, giving us just a basic Biro-type nib that doesn’t make us want to write. It’s like selling us a beautiful new laptop with a keyboard from WalMart.

So, my soapbox lesson for the day: Paper– or pen-based computing is a great notion, and may yet have its day, but developers need to understand that whatever the gizmo can do, it’s first and foremost a pen. (Like a smartphone, however snazzy, is first and foremost a phone.) So make it a great pen first, and then add the bells and whistles. Offer all sorts of different cartridge types and colored inks/gels. Make it a pleasure to doodle with, and then add the technology. Then we’ll grab a hold of the rest of the technology, and this time we may not let go.

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

By Jeremy Wagstaff
from the 27 March 2003 edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review, (c) 2003, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
This is not the first time I’ve reviewed something that tries to marry your doodling to your computer. Most have been shotgun affairs — forced unions that fail to take into account that you might be away from your computer, or that you don’t swagger about with the iron biceps necessary to lug it around with you. This product, however, makes neither of those assumptions, which is why it’s a gadget I’m actually using. It’s called a pen.

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 [], there remains a disconnect between scribbles on a notepad and the computer. I’ve reviewed Seiko Instruments’ SmartPad and InkLink products [], 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 io Pen

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.