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Taking Apart the Livescribe Pulse

See the inner workings of the Livescribe Pulse, a computerized pen that gives handwritten notes audio support.
April 22, 2008

Anyone who’s been a student knows how hard it can be to scribble down everything someone else is saying. This problem is brilliantly solved by the Livescribe Pulse, a computerized pen that records as you write and digitally syncs the audio recording to the notes. Write or draw on specially patterned paper; then tap the pen on a word or sketch, and it will play back what was being said when you made those marks. The pen can also solve equations and define or translate words.

A. Camera
Seventy times a second, the pen photographs specially printed paper within a radius of seven millimeters, using a camera and an infrared diode behind the point to read a pattern of dots. The pen uses the photographic information to map its location against the complete pattern.

B. Processor
A Samsung Arm 9 processor runs the pen’s software, including the algorithms that track its position.


  • See how the Livescribe Pulse works.

When the pen solves an equation or translates a word, the results appear on an organic-light-emitting-diode (OLED) display. The resolution is sharp enough to display kanji characters, says Livescribe’s CEO, Jim Marggraff–an important feature for the pen’s translation function.

D. Memory
With either one or two gigabytes of memory (depending on the model), the pen can store more than 100 hours of recorded audio. It also stores images of what it has written. By connecting the pen to a USB-enabled dock, users can upload all that data to a PC or transfer 250 megabytes of it to Livescribe’s online storage facility. A desktop application can then be used to search stored images of handwritten notes by keyword.

E. Recording Headset
The pen comes with a headset that the user can wear while recording. Microphones in the headset record sound on two tracks, capturing the distinct audio signal received by each ear. When the user plays back the stereo recording, the directional cues make it easier to sort out sounds recorded under less than ideal circumstances, such as a lecture taped from the back of a room.

Software Downloads
Livescribe plans to maintain a clearinghouse online where users can download new applications, some created by the company and others by users. (Anyone who can program in Java can write software for the pen.)

Dot Pattern
The pen is designed to write on paper printed with a very faint pattern of dots. (A notebook comes with the pen, and users can print the pattern onto plain paper using their own printers.) Licensed from the Swedish company Anoto, the pattern consists of dots about 100 micrometers in diameter, arranged 0.3 millimeters apart. Three square millimeters’ worth of dots is enough to define a specific position in the pattern–a position that the pen can track as it moves over the paper. Each printed page has its own unique pattern–actually, a unique portion of a single, non­repeating pattern big enough to cover Europe and Asia. The pattern can be extended if necessary, so Livescribe doesn’t anticipate running out of dots anytime soon.

Image Credit: Toby Pederson

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