Roger Frost learns about 'pencasting' with the Livescrive Echo Smartpen
Livescribe EchoThe Livescribe Echo Smartpen is a remarkable note-taking pen that a student would probably nag a parent to buy. When they struggle to keep up with a quick-firing, careless lecturer, this gadget is an answer. It is a pen to take paper notes, yet it is also a pen with a microphone that records what is being said.

At first I wondered whether any MP3 recorder would do the job as well. When I tried I had to review most of a talk to find the parts I needed. With the Livescribe Smartpen however, a word you write becomes a bookmark for that moment in the recording.

So when you point the pen at your lecture notes, the pen plays back what was being said just then. It’s now so easy to skip to the best bits and get what you need from the lesson.

A teacher's 'pencast' file can play back audio and words as they were recorded

So far I have found the pen valuable for recording interviews and department meetings. It does this well and this recording device disguised as a pen does its job discreetly. However a less obvious use comes to mind: if you were a maths tutor you could also use it to ‘give’ a lesson’ by talking through your lesson as you write your sums on the pad. Livescribe calls this a ‘pencast’. It takes the form of a standard, very portable Adobe Acrobat file which replays the words and audio as you recorded it.

You can obviously improve your recording success by being close to the source. It’s also obvious that you ought to review the event before too long has passed. You listen using the speaker or headphone socket which is part of the pen. You write in a supplied notebook where a pattern of tiny dots on the paper tells a camera in the pen tip what you are writing. You can also write on pages you print yourself. It works like magic and even the Livescribe 2Gb model has enough space for 200 hours of recording.

But it’s after you have recorded an event that things get more magical. To share your work, you simply draw a line in a forward-and-back gesture. The pen will prompt to ask what you want to do. You can write the words "email" or "Facebook" or a "Google Drive". You make some further choices, such as which page you want to send, and who you’re sending this to, and the ‘pencast’ will be sent on its way to your destination when you next connect the pen to the computer.

If you simply connect the pen to the computer, the Livescribe desktop software will automatically charge the battery and sync with the pen. This simple act places all your writing; drawing and doodles on screen just as you’ve seen them on paper. And again, here you can click on the words on screen to re-live the lecture or meeting. You can even search for a word you wrote and if it’s moderately readable, the software will find the handwritten word. The desktop software handles connections to all sorts of useful outputs. You set it up with information so that a recording can be emailed or sent to Google Docs and more. It’s so well thought out you can seemingly send your work to everything, including iPhone; iPad or Evernote, which is a popular information store.

'Rare example of technology worked out and well developed by the makers'

There have been pens with technology before this. There are line-scanning pens that you rub over lines of printed text and they will store the results within. Most of them can recognise the text; and display it on a scrolling line. They can translate it or voice it to help readers or language learners. Ten years ago Logitech made the io pen which would copy your written notes to the screen. The Livescribe Smartpen arrives with today’s technology to make better use of what we write.

A visit to the Livescribe ‘App store’ can be recommended to get the scope of this. You will be overwhelmed with applications including language phrase books and a tool that turns handwriting into text. (This particular software tool comes bundled in some packages). However, the pen’s use for a student recording lessons; or a teacher recording tutorials for students appear legion. What’s more you need no more than ipod or PC to make use of them.

The device itself has a feel of quality, and crucially seems to hold a good charge in its battery. It is a rare example of a technology that has been worked out and well developed by the makers. Like many devices, lots of people will have no use for it but this is just waiting for a teacher or school ready to run with it. If you wanted to make your own version of Khan Academy, the video teaching site, I think you could make a better job of that with ease.

And then there are students who treasure every word said in a lesson. I hope we’ll hear more how Livescribe is being used in earnest. And I especially hope to hear more on how handwriting can gain a purpose in an IT world that lacks an idea on what to do with it.

Livescribe Echo Smartpen
Digital pen that also records audio which is synched to the pen's movement. The pen reviewed, which has 2Gb of memory, costs around £70 (£150 for 8Gb version). Also now available is a wifi model which can transmit the data directly over wi-fi.
App store

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