Sunday, January 20, 2008

Oh baby, that's a nice pen!

In about a week, a new product should hitting the virtual shelves. It has the potential to really hit it big. What is it? A pen. Specifically, the Livescribe. In addition to being a pen, it's also a computer, with an open platform to develop applications. We've all heard of products that are supposed to change the world. The difference with this particular device is that it's not supposed to change the world, and that is the exact reason that it might. Let me digress for a moment, then I'll come back to the pen, and hopefully that last sentence of mine will make more sense.

Think back a few years ago when Dean Kamen released the Segway. It is a transportation device that was heralded by some as having the potential to change the way that cities are built. Everyone in the world would want one. It would solve traffic problems, encourage walkable communities, clean up the air, etc. Fast forward about six years, and you'll maybe see an airport cop patrolling the terminal on one. A few mailmen deliver on them. There are specialty tours where you can see the city on a Segway. There are also arguments about whether the Segway should be allowed on the sidewalks since it could knock over pedestrians, but cars don't want to share the road with them either. Why isn't the Segway catching on, even though it's a wicked cool device? It requires us to change or adapt the way we do things in order to use it. It's neither a pedestrian device nor a vehicle. There's nowhere to park it. It takes about 5 hours to fully recharge after driving a maximum range of about 10 miles. It's too different, yet does not provide much benefit over a standard bicycle, other than being easier to make it up hills and harder to throw on the rack on the front of the bus.

My daughter got a doll for Christmas. (I'm still digressing, and I'm still planning on coming back to the pen.) This doll was supposed to be different than the dog my other daughter got for Christmas the year before. It's not. Both the doll and the dog are voice-activated. You talk to the dog and it does tricks or plays with a chew rope or eats a bone. You teach it to howl and shake. Well, when it understands what you say anyway, you can do all that stuff. It has to be perfectly quiet in the room, which doesn't happen much with four kids running around the house. It can't hear you if its moving or talking. You can only tell it commands that have been preprogrammed. You have to talk clearly. With high end voice recognition software like Dragon Naturally Speaking, there is a training period where it learns your voice, but it also trains you to speak more clearly. With this doll and dog, there's no training. It either understands you or it doesn't. I don't know how the experience with the dog didn't make it obvious that the doll wouldn't be a good buy either, but nevertheless it made its way to our house in Santa's bag. She plays counting games. She cries, and you have to ask her what she needs. You can feed her and make her go to sleep. Well, when it understands what you say anyway, you can do all that stuff. A good toy lets you do whatever you want with it. These voice-activated toys that don't understand what you want them to do just cause frustration, because you can only play with them how they were programmed to let you play with them.

What did all that have to do with the Livescribe? Well, it's a pen. It writes - whatever you want to write, in your own handwriting, as fast or as slow as your hand moves, just the same as any pen or pencil you've grown up with. You don't have to change or learn anything new. We've been writing so long that it would be hard to learn to write in another way. Just like the Qwerty vs. Dvorak keyboards - Dvorak is more efficient, but you have to relearn how to type, so we perpetuate Qwerty. So Livescribe simply lets you write, and while you write you can have it record audio. Later, when reviewing your notes, you can click on a word and play back the audio it recorded while you were writing that word. You can upload your notes to your computer and email them to your friends or search for certain words that you wrote down. So you still take notes the way you always have, but you now have recorded the audio that went with it. Cognitive load is decreased, because you don't have to worry about transcribing every word if you missed something. If you record a lecture using a regular mp3 voice recorder or tape recorder and you want to find the part where your professor explained a certain concept, you're going to be fast forwarding and rewinding, trying to find it. With Livescribe, you click on the word in your notes and hear the professor's voice defining it for you. Think of the uses: business meetings, field reporters, servers in a restaurant, professors grading student essays, etc.

In addition to being able to synchronize handwritten notes with recorded audio and easily share both with others, the Livescribe is an open platform, which will allow anyone to develop new applications to use the Livescribe. So really, the uses are endless and there will be little or no training required to use it. You just click record and start writing. Then you click play and point to the word where you want it to start playback from. It costs less than many iPods or cell phones, at about $200. You don't have to do anything different from what you might normally do, but you get the benefit of multiple technologies working together.

I hope it lives up to all the possibilities. The company is run by a team of experts who have collectively worked at such big names as Apple, BEA, Leapfrog, IBM, HP, Palm, GE, CNET, Chevron, and Lexar. If anyone can do it, hopefully these guys can.


Anonymous said...

Hey Rob,

Interesting post, but I worry that you're central tenet--the idea that this pen may work because it integrates seamlessly with our natural behaviors--is too optimistic.

Digital pens have been on the market for over a decade I believe and yet, with the exception of the LeapFrog toy version, none has sold more than a handful of units. Why?

Because there is so so much new behavior to learn. "Computing" with a digital pen is a heartbreakingly inefficient and difficult process, one requiring the user to learn a new language (can you remember how to write Grafitti on your Palm?), and battle through a UI that requires the pen's OCR technology to function at a high level of accuracy, something no pen predecessor has been able to do.

Now this new pen promises some cool things and I hope the audio capture works well (though I worry about how well it's going to pick up my professors voice from the back of the conference room among other concerns), but if it works, it will work because it is so life changing that people are willing to invest the time to learn the new behavior (and also purchase all new notebooks that as of now are only available on line). Seems like a poor bet, but just my $.02


Zara said...

Hey! I work for Livescribe. I'm a campus representative. In part, I wanted the job because I thought I'd have a chance at getting the pen ASAP. I wanted one for all the reasons you've articulated so elegantly, and I have a lot of faith in the product as I learn more about it in my job.


robmba said...

Janak, I've seen a demo of the pen, but have not yet had a chance to use it personally. I'm looking forward to trying one out myself. Based on the theory behind the design and the included software, it looks like a winner, but yes, time will tell. People will be able to develop their own apps, which may or may not be designed well, but the included app really does not require a high level of accuracy with the OCR, nor does it require learning new behavior.

Anonymous said...


I'll give you that the included content (assume we're talking about "paper replay") probably doesn't require much work, if any, from the OCR, but in terms of a behavior shift, I still think it's a lot to ask to get people to carry around specially designed notebooks. And the other apps will face the same clumsy UI issues faced by previous digital pens.

You're right, time will tell, but this just feels like too great a shift in the way we think about using and paying for pen and paper.