The Livescribe paper-based computing platform consists of a digital pen, digital paper, software applications, and developer tools. Central to the Livescribe platform is the smartpen, a ballpoint pen with an embedded computer and digital audio recorder. When used with Anoto digital paper, it records what it writes for later uploading to a computer, and synchronizes those notes with any audio it has recorded. This allows users to replay portions of a recording by tapping on the notes they were taking at the time the recording was made. It is also possible to select which portion of a recording to replay by clicking on the relevant portion of a page on-screen, once it has been synced to the Livescribe Desktop software. Jim Marggraff, inventor of the LeapFrog FLY Pentop computer and creator of the LeapPad Learning System, left Leapfrog in 2005 to form Livescribe. In November 2015, Livescribe announced its acquisition by Anoto for $15m.
A Livescribe smartpen is about the size and weight of a large pen (5/8″ x 6 1/8″), and is equipped with a removable ball-point ink cartridge, a microphone to record audio, a speaker for playback, a small OLED display, an infra-red camera, and internal flash memory that captures handwritten notes, audio and drawings. The user can choose to record audio in addition to the handwritten text. Recorded audio is kept indexed with the handwritten text—tapping on a written word starts playback of the recorded audio from that part of the recording. The smartpen allows the installation of as many applications as there is memory, and ships with several applications. If tapped on the correct images, it can function as a calculator, for example, or can translate words (the translator software as shipped includes only 21 words in a small selection of languages – as of September 2010 there are no public plans to make a full version of this translator available ). Livescribe has made four versions of its smartpen: Pulse, Echo, Sky Wi-Fi (or Livescribe Wi-Fi), and Livescribe 3. The pens can store about 100 hours of audio per gigabyte.
The product was initially available only for use with Microsoft Windows-based computers, but version 1.0 of Livescribe Desktop for the Mac was made available via download in March 2009. It requires OS X 10.5.5 or higher, and was one of nine products designated as “Best of Show” at Macworld Expo 2009. There is no official Linux version at this time, however, there have been efforts to make the product work with Linux, such as LibreScribe and Smartpen-Browser. Livescribe has provided a user forum at the request of Linux users. Apple’s release of Snow Leopard caused functionality and compatibility issues with Livescribe’s driver installation. On 31 August 2009, Livescribe released beta 1.2 which fixes all compatibility issues, albeit those who previously tried to install the old software would need to manually delete the old file extension. Handwriting recognition functionality is provided by a third-party application, MyScript by Vision Objects Inc., which sells separately for $29.95. As of August 2009, this is available on both Microsoft Windows and Mac (Intel-processor) systems. The Livescribe 3 currently has support on iOS and Android. It does not have support on Windows or Windows Phone.
Livescribe’s special paper that allows the recording of notes uses a patented dot-positioning system licensed from Anoto.
As with all Anoto pattern-based pens, the smartpen can only determine its position on the page when used with paper pre-printed with the dot pattern. Livescribe sells notebooks in several styles, and users can also print their own dot paper with a laser printer capable of at least 600 dpi. (A color or monochrome laser printer works.) The Anoto pattern consists of numerous small black dots in patterns that are essentially invisible to the human eye, but can be detected by the pen’s infrared camera. The pattern indicates the exact position of the digital pen on the page, and each page has a unique identity so that they can be distinguished from each other.
Notes and audio can be sent to other users as a “pencast” through the Livescribe Desktop software. The Livescribe Connect service, launched in May 2011, allows pencasts to be sent through e-mail, Evernote, Facebook, Google Docs, and other methods. These can also be saved as an interactive Pencast PDF that can be viewed with versions 10 and higher of Adobe Reader. While compatibility with OneNote 2010 was initially available, LiveScribe has not provided connectivity support for OneNote 2013.
Livescribe has developed a Penlet SDK to enable the development of applications for the smartpen. The SDK was Java-based, and the applications ran directly on the pen itself. Applications can display text and menus, as well as produce audio commentary. A Desktop SDK for Microsoft and Macintosh operating systems has also been promised, allowing developers to access files stored on the pen. On June 2, 2009, Livescribe announced the draft SDK 1.0 for Windows at the 2009 JavaOne conference. This was followed in December 2009 with the announcement of the global developer challenge to “… encourage the creation of compelling applications for the Pulse smartpen in 2010 and beyond. ” On April 27, 2010, Livescribe announced the winners of the Developer Challenge:
From March 2008 to July 2010, Livescribe sold 400,000 copies. About thirty percent of the clients are students, while the majority are professionals in fields such as journalism, law, or sales. Some universities deliver Livescribe products to students with learning disabilities to reduce note-taking anxiety. PC World evaluated the original Livescribe Pulse Pen 93/100. An article in the Associated Press in September 2011 compared the Livescribe Echo pen to an iPad for note-taking and concluded that Echo was “the best tool.” In June 2009, Livescribe was named one of BusinessWeeks’ “Top 50 Technology Startups”. The Livescribe awards include the Codie Award, MacLife’s Editor’s Choice Award, and the Silicon Valley Business Journal Emerging Tech Award. Some users have noted that ambient noise can be a problem. The built-in microphone on the pen can pick up small amounts of noise from the writing on paper, and the surrounding ambient noise is often louder than a distant speaker. However, the included headphones have built-in microphones that reduce this ambient noise. (The Echo headphones must be purchased separately). The portable size and audio recording capabilities of the smartpen have led some people to question the ethics and legality of using the device. For example, in 2009, Delta Air Lines accused the Atlanta airport manager of using a Livescribe pen to illegally record a meeting of city officials and airlines without their consent. The city of Atlanta concluded an investigation into the case the following year and found insufficient evidence that the airport manager deliberately sought to record the private conversations of the airline. Livescribe urges its customers to “behave ethically and be courteous in terms of privacy”, as they would with everyday devices such as cameras and cell phones. Some users expressed frustration at the perceived lack of responsiveness to feature enhancement requests. Some of the most popular enhancements include the ability to print forms on dot pattern paper and an agenda for use with the pen system. These demands began to surface soon after the pen system was released, but the company’s answers are rare and tend to be superficial.
There appear to be design flaws with the OLED display or possibly with the firmware on the Pulse, Echo and Sky (WiFi) models. The OLED fades after one to three years, making the pen significantly more difficult to use because it is no longer possible to see if the pen is on or not and customers need to rely on the audio feedback alone. This fading issue is a known disadvantage of OLEDs and results in a limited lifespan. Users have complained to Livescribe, and the company’s official response is to point users to tips on pen maintenance and then suggest that users buy a new pen at a deep discount as a replacement. Some users who received a replacement saw it plagued by the same problem. However, the company has taken advantage of ongoing improvements in OLED technology and, as of January 1, 2015, now offers a 3-year warranty on new smartpens (including the discounted replacements). The OLED issue has alienated some Livescribe users, especially with the high price tags of the accessories and of the smartpen itself. Once the OLED display fails: Many cellphone cameras can see the IR light emitted when the pen is on so using the camera to look at the front of the pen and depressing the ink cartridge is one way of determining the operating status. Additionally, using the Volume Up/Down icons will cause a beep when the pen is on. Unfortunately, there is no way to determine if the pen is actually recording audio without the OLED indications thus rendering useless one of its primary functions. Livescribe offers free, fully warrantied replacements to customers who experience an issue with their OLED displays when their pen is in warranty. For US customers whose smartpens are out-of-warranty, the company offers replacement options that allow customers to purchase a fully warrantied replacement pen for a discounted price.