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Computing on Paper

Livescribe’s smartpen turns a sheet of paper into a computer.
December 13, 2007

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.

Paper-based multimedia: Livescribe’s smartpen, shown above, can turn handwritten text interactive, introducing multimedia features to an ordinary notebook.

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.

Pads of the paper with the special pattern will be sold by Livescribe. Users will also be able to print the pattern on regular, blank sheets of paper using certain high-quality printers.

Marggraff says that the dot-positioning technology, which he read about in a magazine, was partly what inspired his endeavors in paper-based computing. Before the Livescribe smartpen, he worked on the Fly Pentop Computer, a product for children developed from earlier applications of the technology.

In addition to the microdot pattern, the Livescribe smartpen makes use of other technologies, including a 3-D audio recording system. This technology, Marggraff says, is designed to make the pen’s paper-replay function more useful in less than ideal recording conditions. If a student using the smartpen gets stuck in the back of a lecture hall, for example, most recordings would risk being too low-quality to be useful. The pen, however, uses two microphones to record the sound the way the user would have heard it originally: the two microphones help the listener sort different sounds, much as information from two ears helps people identify the source of a sound.

Rodney Brooks, director of the computer-science and artificial-intelligence laboratory at MIT, who has been an advisor to the product, says that connecting writing and computation in the smartpen is “a real step forward.” While Brooks notes that it’s unfortunate that a user must have special paper in addition to a special pen, he is still very enthusiastic about the technology. “If a magic wand could be waved and you didn’t require [special paper], that would be wonderful, but these are pretty big steps even without that,” he says.

Other companies have previously made products using the dot-positioning technology. Logitech, for example, licensed the microdot pattern from Anoto to build a digital pen called io. Mark Anderson, director of business development at Logitech, says that the io employs the dot technology to allow users to take notes and view them as typewritten text on a PC, and other similar applications. However, at this time, Anderson says that the io does not have multimedia functions.

Beyond the capabilities that the Livescribe smartpen already has, the company is releasing tools that developers can use to build their own applications for the pen. Marggraff hopes that the pen will become a new computing platform for consumers, replacing some existing mobile products.

Brooks says that he can imagine the pen taking on that role. “People do change their platforms,” he says.

The smartpen is planned for release in January, when more product details will be available.

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