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Livescribe Pulse Smartpen: It's a Java-Powered Life Saver!

So here's the story, several weeks ago I was given the opportunity to report on the JavaOne conference for DZone. On June 1, I attended the CommunityOne conference and used up most of the ink in the pen I brought with me. Now I don't know about you, but normally I spend way more time typing than writing with a pen; and I quickly realized that unless I found another way to take notes I was going to be in some serious pain long before JavaOne was over. I though about using my laptop, but I've tried taking notes at the local Java User Group meetings and found that trying to balance it on my knees while typing just wasn't practical. I was in trouble, and I knew it...until I remembered something.

Now this is a bit of a tangent, but it is short and important to the story so please hang in there.

The day before CommunityOne my friend Chris and I attended the Bay Area Maker Faire, which is advertised as the world's largest Do-It-Yourself festival. It's an awesome event for people who like to make things, or like to see (and sometimes buy) things other people make. It's difficult to describe, but lots of fun to see; and if you're interested check this website (http://www.makerfaire.com/) to see if there's an upcoming Faire in your area.

It was towards the end of the day and we were wandering through an area with hi-tech stuff like the robot builder's club, and a machine that “printed” 3-D objects made out of melted sugar, when I spotted the booth where Livescribe was demonstrating the Pulse smartpen. I remembered seeing it at last year's JavaOne (2008), where it won a Duke's Choice Award and James Gosling declared it "completely brilliant", so I steered Chris over to see what she thought of it. After watching a demo of the basic features, she looked at me, grinned, and said, "It's magic!"


Getting back to the story, what I remembered was that Livescribe was going to have a booth at the JavaOne Pavilion. (You can probably guess where I'm going with this, but I'll say it anyway.) The solution to my problem was to get a Pulse smartpen so I didn't have to write so much and I wouldn't be permanently crippled with writer's cramp. I got in touch with Livescribe's PR firm, explained my predicament and asked about the possibility of getting a Pulse smartpen to help me cover the conference in return for a product review. Either they liked the idea, or maybe it was pity, but later that afternoon I picked up a 1GB Pulse pen and began learning how to use it.

For those of you who aren't familiar with the Pulse smartpen, it's an amazing tool. First of all, it's a real ink pen and you can swap out the ballpoint cartridge for a different color, or for a stylus. OK, so that's not very impressive; but wait, there's more... While the pen is a bit thicker than most pens, (.55 inches in diameter) it is still comfortable to hold and use. The reason it's so thick is that it's packed full of electronics; there's a 32-bit 150MHz microprocessor, 1 or 2 gigabytes of memory, a high speed (over 70 images per second) infrared camera, a microphone, a speaker, a 96x18 OLED display, miscellaneous circuitry to wire it all together, and a 300 milliamp hour rechargeable battery. Yes, there's a computer build into the pen... and it runs Java.

So what's the point of all this gadgetry? Simple, really. The Pulse uses the camera to track what you write or draw, while creating an audio recording and uses a time stamp to synchronize the two data sources. The result is that when you tap on something you wrote, or drew, the Pulse can play back what it recorded at that moment. Just imagine how useful it would be to have an audio recording of a class, or meeting. There's no question of what was said and by whom. You can start at the beginning and play the whole thing, or jump into a specific point in time by tapping on your notes.

For me, it was a lifesaver. Being able to replay a section of a keynote or technical session so you can report on exactly what was said is critical in some cases. Add to that, the fact that I could take fewer notes, because I had the original audio to supply any details, meant that I could listen for things like what wasn't said instead of trying to write down what was being said. And did I mention that it meant less writing over all, which meant fewer hand cramps.

Review:
There are many sparkling reviews out there for the Pulse smartpen, and having used it to keep track of what was going on for three days at JaveOne, I don't doubt that they are well deserved. I will admit that I started to write another one of those, but decided to do something different. So here it is, three things you should know about the Livescribe Pulse smartpen that the other reviews might not cover.

First, it is true that in order to track what you've written or drawn the Pulse needs specially prepared paper. You can buy spiral bound notebooks, flip-open notepads, and lined or unlined journals that evoke a moleskine look. You are not, however, forced to buy their paper. Assuming you have access to a 600 dots-per-inch, color LaserJet printer that understands Adobe Postscript, you can print your own 25 page notebooks. While that may seem limited, considering that their notebooks have 100 or 150 pages and even the little 3x5 flip notepads have 60 pages, I can tell you that it is enough space to cover a four-day conference.

Second, remember that the pen synchronizes the audio it's recording with what you are writing, so it's important to actually take notes. If you don't then there's nothing to synch the audio to, which makes it difficult to find a particular point in the recording. If you do make that mistake, there's still some options: you can increase the playback speed so you don't have to listen to the whole thing in real time; you can jump forward or back up it in ten-second increments; or you can use the "jump to position" control to jump to arbitrary points in the recording.

Third, according to Livescribe 1GB pen will hold about 100 hours of audio, which is way more than you can record without recharging. This brings us to another nicety. The Pulse comes with a recharger that plugs into a USB port on your computer, and when you put the pen into the recharger it also uploads everything you've recorded into the LiveScribe Desktop Application. (One potential downside; currently the Desktop is only available on a Mac or PC. If you're running Linux, you're out of luck unless you can load up one of the supported operating systems on something like VirtualBox.)

When the pen gets full, or you've filled up a notepad or notebook, you can archive the information which removes it from the pen but keeps it available on your computer. This means that you can't open up the notebook/journal and play back the audio by tapping on it, but you can view it in the Desktop application and play back the audio there. One important note: do not archive a notebook/journal that you want to continue using with the pen later.

One bonus bit of information: if you're a Java developer, you can write applications (called penlets) that run on the pen. Livescribe has made a pre-release of the "Platform SDK" available to developers which includes the Penlet SDK (with tools and sample code), and the "Paper Designer for Eclipse" which lets you create your own paper controls (like those on the pre-printed notebooks) that interact with the pen.

Wrap up:
I've had the Pulse smartpen for three weeks, and I've used it a good bit. The pen is holding up well, I still enjoy using it, and I'm still impressed with how well it manages to "read" my writing when I search my uploaded notes.

Having read this far, you won't be surprised to know that I think this is an excellent tool and that almost everyone would benefit from owning and using one.

If you attend events like meetings, or training sessions, where critical information is delivered orally then it's obvious that using a Pulse will make a huge difference in your life. Instead of being heads-down while trying to write down everything that is said before you forget it, you can take the time to think about what's being said and participate in the discussion. It's that kind of thing that makes me agree with Chris, the Pulse smartpen really is magic!

Resources:
Check out Livescribe's web site at http://www.livescribe.com/index.html for more information, or to buy your own Pulse smartpen. You can also find the Pulse at amazon.com and Target.

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