A new smartpen could change the way people practice mobile computing by bringing processing power to traditional pen and paper. Made by Livescribe, of Oakland, CA, the smartpen is designed to digitize the words and drawings that a user puts down on paper and bring them to life.
So long as the user writes on paper printed with a special pattern, the smartpen transforms what is written into interactive text. For example, the pen has a recording function, called paper replay, that can record sound and connect it to what the user writes while the sounds are being recorded. Later, the user can tap the pen over what she wrote and replay the associated sounds. “We’re starting to make the whole world of printable surfaces accessible and functional,” says Livescribe CEO Jim Marggraff.
The smartpen, he says, will enable “paper-based multimedia,” such as interactive business cards. Marggraff’s business card, for example, allows contacts to e-mail him by writing him a note on its surface with a smartpen. Users can also access the pen’s power by writing commands on any surface printed with the pattern. For example, if a smartpen user wants to know the definition of a word, she can write, “define,” followed by the word. The pen, using data stored in its memory, will recognize the word the user writes and display its definition on a small screen on the side of the pen. The same type of procedure can be used to translate words or solve math problems.
“I wanted to make the pen itself interactive and give you feedback, so that as you’re writing on paper, the pen could interpret what you’re doing and then tell you something about it,” says Marggraff. “That opens up a whole new way of interacting with paper, because effectively, the pen and the paper become a computer.”
The pen’s features depend on its ability to track its position on the paper at all times. This is largely made possible, Marggraff explains, by the paper. The paper that the pen uses is printed with microdots according to a process developed by the Swedish company Anoto. The pattern provides gridded location information on a very small scale. The pen knows its position by taking a picture of what’s beneath the pen tip and processing it based on the algorithms used to produce the patterns of microdots. Paper replay, for example, then works because the pen associates particular points of an audio track with particular locations on a particular page. “If you printed the whole pattern out, it would cover Europe and Asia in square miles,” Marggraff says. “So when your pen goes down in Southern Italy in a tiny corner, it knows exactly where you are.” This means that a user can permanently link audio information to particular locations in a notebook, with no worry about losing the link when she turns the page. Because of the size of the pattern and the possibilities for extending it even further, Marggraff says, he’s not worried that it will run out.