The Highs and Lows of the LiveScribe Pulse digital pen

I bought myself a LiveScribe Pulse digital pen for Christmas.  I was tossing up between a pen and a new mobile phone.  I ended up getting the pen.

Overall, I am happy with the pen.  It so far has captured everything I have written onto my computer, and allowed me to search through my written notes.

How does it work?  Very briefly you have to write onto special paper that has a dot pattern on it.  The dots are very small and laid out in a special pattern (patented by Antonio) where using a camera in the tip of the pen it can work out where on the page the pen is currently writing.  The pen has a pressure sensor in it to detect when the pen is pushing against paper (which turns the camera on).  The full dot pattern if printed out apparently would cover half the contenent of Australia, so its pretty big.  LiveScribe have licensed part of the dot space, so they have a number of journals you can buy (I got student ones numbered 1 to 4, 200 pages each).  One minor gripe – its pretty heavy paper, making the journals rather heavy to carry around.

The search capability is rather cool.  I immediately thought it was doing handwriting to text recognition, and a pretty good job.  All the searches I tried worked – they found the scribble I had written.  However when I tried to use the pen APIs to do the same thing myself, it worked poorly.  It turns out the search capability looks for any strokes that may be interpreted as that word.  That is, it really does a shape search, not a text search.  This was slightly disappointing once it sunk in.  All these visions of copying and pasting hand written text into email went down the tube.  Later, a US$30 add on was made available that did convert writing to text – but there have been mixed reviews on how well it works.  Certainly lots of typos, and it does very “interesting” stuff with acroynms not in its dictionary.

One of the reasons I bought the pen was the fact that it had a free development environment.  You can write “Penlets” in Java and load them into the pen.  They have a few little demos they ship with the pen.  One you can start a “Piano” application then draw the outline of 8 keys (8 rectangles) then tapping in the rectangles plays that particular note.  Cute.  Another demo is writing down words in a translator application, then you can click on the word to speak it in another language (like Mandarin).  The demo has around 20 words – enough to have a bit of fun (but not much more).

Another “killer” application built into the pen is what they call “paper replay”.  Basically, the pen has an audio recorder built in.  I must say, its pretty good quality (compared to an olypus voice recorder I have).  The really funky thing however is if you write notes while recording audio, you can later tap on your notes and it will seek to that point in the audio recording.  Great for interviews, lectures, etc.  You can record a session, then easily skip to a point via tapping on the notes.  It seeks to that point in the audio track and starts playing.  They have a web site you can upload sessions to in order to share them.  Good for students.  Useless for corporate material.  There is no way I would put anything remotely sensitive or commercially valuable in their site, out of my control.  The desktop software unfortunately does not yet support exporting a session so you can share it with colleages any other way.  This is a real problem, and frequently complained about in the forums.  (The other popular complaint is that you cannot delete any content.)

However looking in the forums lots of people have problems with the pen.  Many send it back for a replacement.  I don’t know the percentage, it may be low, but it was interesting to see.  Even more interesting is when I started trying to program the pen, I managed to get it to crash with strange error messages pretty easily.  The SDK is still pre-release, and there is no online store available yet (coming second half of 2009 they claim).

Overall, I have to say I think the hardware seems pretty good, but their software is fairly weak.  The desktop UI has strange quirks, chews up lots of memory and CPU at times for no apparent reason, the SDK APIs feel strange and inconsistent in places.  My main hope is at least the software can be upgraded via downloads.  Hopefully they will get on top of it all.

Oh, another gotcha.  You cannot replace the battery when it dies.  You have to buy a new pen (!).


  1. Hi!
    Do you still have a copy of the penlet SDK? I would love to get one, but unfortunately this is near impossible…
    Greetings from Germany!

    1. No. All gone and probably out of date if I did still have it.

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