For the last week I’ve been using a Livescibe Echo smartpen, and I flat-out love it. When Livescribe gave me their 8gb version to demo, I have to admit I was dubious at first; I spend a lot of time banging away on a keyboard, and I was pretty sure that the pen and the pad were going the way of the dodo. Man, was I wrong.
First, the basics: the Echo smartpen digitally captures your handwritten and audio notes, the combination of which is a ‘pencast’. Basically, when you tap the “record” area of the specially printed paper, everything that you write (and the sounds associated with it) are recorded. You can transfer files from the pen and share your recorded notes with others, and you can also tap any section of your notes and hear what was recorded when you were writing the note. Livescribe makes it incredibly easy to share your pencasts with others as it automatically hooks up to your email, Google Docs, Evernote, Facebook, Mobile (iPhone and iPad) and/or MyLivescribe (an online storage space for pencasts).
For a developer with daily standup meetings, design meetings and requirements elicitation meetings, this tool was exactly what I needed- although I didn’t know it before I tried it. Every morning, I get in a room around 11 am with some other developers and project managers (some of whom are remote) and we talk about what we’re doing, what we’re going to be doing, and anything that might be blocking us. Generally someone would bring in a laptop computer, interpret the main points as we speak, and type them into Evernote. After the meeting, the notes are mailed out to a larger group of people so that they can get an overview of what we’re working on and ask us any questions. With the Echo pen, I’ve been taking the meeting notes and finding that they’re easier to take, easy to share, and have more complete information for any readers not in the meeting.
I recently took the notes in the morning meeting, which for the first time included drawings and diagrams since the Echo isn’t limited to keyboard input. When I got back to my desk, I plugged the pen into my USB port and with a few clicks I’d shared the notes with the appropriate people. The recipients can scan the text to see if it is important to them, and can also click on any particular piece of text to see what was said by the people in the meeting when it was written. This allows people to get complete information about sections that interest them easily and quickly.
Another great use that I’ve found for the pen in my line of work is in the documentation of software systems. Software is very complex, and generally requires diagrams explaining how it works. The Echo smartpen allows me to add my own commentary to these diagrams, giving future developers more insight into what I was thinking when I made the design. The easy sharing and exporting works great for this purpose as well, since the whole purpose of software documentation is sharing the information with others. Pencasts are exported in Adobe-friendly PDF format, which are easily shared or uploaded to wikis and forums. This is actually pretty revolutionary in my industry.
If I had to pick something that could be improved about the pen, I would say that it is a bit larger than your average pen; however, I have large hands and didn’t find it hard to write with at all. The other thing that some might find cumbersome is that a specific style of paper is required to get the full pencast functionality. The good news about this is that the Livescribe software makes it easy to print this paper on your office printer, so you won’t have to make special paper orders to continue using the pen. Although the pen itself is just a ballpoint pen, the ink is refillable and the writing is fairly smooth. I ‘m really impressed with this product, and plan to use my Livescribe smartpen at work every day.
To see this post as a pencast, download this file. And check out the video below of Mario demonstrating an earlier version of the Livescribe Pulse pen at a keynote address.