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Gadget Fanatics, Take Note

Sooner or later, almost everything goes digital: cameras, camcorders, music players, TV, books, you name it.

So far, though, there’s been no successful electronic version of the input device beloved by reporters, students, lyricists and claims adjusters: good old pen on paper.

The Pulse smartpen.
LiveScribe
The Pulse smartpen.

There have been efforts. Pens based on Anoto technology (sold by Logitech and others) and Leapfrog’s Fly Fusion pen work the same way: you write on special paper that’s been printed with millions of nearly invisible microdots. By watching those dots, a tiny camera in the pen tip learns its position and a microchip converts your pen strokes into digital ink. Such pens can transfer the results to a PC and do basic handwriting recognition.

Jim Marggraff, a veteran of both Anoto and Leapfrog, is now at a new start-up company called LiveScribe. This month, it introduced the Pulse smartpen, which Mr. Marggraff says is the final step in his vision for “paper-based computing.”

In an anodized aluminum barrel about the thickness of a Sharpie, the Pulse has a camera, microphone and surprisingly loud speaker. It also has a bright black-and-white screen (18 by 96 pixels) that displays messages, menu commands and even little animations. There’s a nonremovable, rechargeable battery (6 to 7 hours a charge), a headphone jack and contacts for a U.S.B. charging cradle.

Oh, and it’s also a ballpoint pen.

The Pulse’s primary power is its ability to record audio while you write. Later, if you tap a written word, the pen plays back the audio it recorded at that moment. (Or, rather, what it heard five seconds before you started writing, to compensate for your reaction time.)

In the special microdot notebooks, the bottom of each page offers little preprinted “buttons” that control the playback speed, volume and so on.

It’s not a new idea; Microsoft’s OneNote for Windows and Word for Macintosh perform much the same stunt, though they record while you type rather than write.

The benefactors of this technology, though, are pretty much the same: students taking notes during lectures, reporters conducting interviews, and so on. It could also be useful when you’re learning a new language (tap a written phrase, hear how your teacher pronounced it) or listening critically to music (if you’re a reviewer, music teacher or “American Idol” judge).

The Pulse is more advanced than its predecessors in several ways. It’s the first pen with a screen and microphone, and it contains a huge amount of memory. The $150 model contains 1 gigabyte, enough to hold 20 hours of best-quality stereo audio. The $200 model doubles the memory.

The pen connects to its docking stand with a satisfying magnetic click. At this point, all the notes and recorded audio are slurped automatically into a Windows program called LiveScribe Desktop. The company says that a Mac version is a few months away.

Once your notes are in this program, you can search for handwritten words — a hugely important feature that lets you pull one audio needle out of a haystack of pages.

You can also upload your note pages to a private Web site, where the company provides 250 megabytes of free storage. Here, you can click your handwritten words or drawings with your mouse to begin audio playback, just as though you were tapping with the pen.

You can e-mail links to these Web pages to fellow students who skipped class, for example, or business associates working on the same deal in another city. They, too, can now click and listen. Some samples are at http://tinyurl.com/6fya97.

If handwriting isn’t an option at the moment — maybe you don’t have one of the special pads with you — the pen can serve as a standard, if nearly invisible, digital audio recorder. Great for spies.

You can even add handwritten notes to one of these recordings after the fact, as the audio plays back, which is a neat trick indeed.

Through contests and other initiatives, LiveScribe hopes to inspire the creation of hundreds of new Pulse programs. Several samples are included, most of which originated on the Fly pen: a demo translation program (write “hello,” hear the pen say “hola”) with a vocabulary of only 21 words; a music program that prompts you to draw a one-octave piano keyboard, which you can then play by tapping; and a simple calculator. You write “37 x 13=” and the screen shows the answer (481).

Maybe that glorious age of “paper computing” will arrive, and maybe not. In the meantime, LiveScribe has a lot of work cut out for it.

The screamingly obvious limitation is the requirement to write on special paper. True, LiveScribe has priced the pads fairly reasonably ($20 for four 100-sheet perforated notebooks), and says that in June, you’ll be able to laser-print your own microdotted paper from a downloadable PDF template. Still, the real fun won’t begin until digital pens work on any kind of paper. (Iogear has one, but it doesn’t record audio.)

Another problem: when you use the pen’s built-in microphone, you record not just your own voice but also the scratching of the pen itself on the paper.

More bugs, complexities

When you’re recording anybody else, or recording a telephone call, you’re supposed to wear the Pulse’s earbuds, which contain microphones. When you play the recording back, you get an enhanced 3-D spatial audio experience.

Unfortunately, these earbud-mikes are big, hard and uncomfortable. My first set didn’t even work, and had to be replaced.

I found software bugs at every turn — on the pen, in the Windows software and on the Web site. The company promises to fix them promptly.

Beyond the basics, the Pulse is also jaw-clenchingly hard to learn. This itty-bitty thing actually has menus and submenus; you’re supposed to tap the points of a cross (it appears on every page of the pads, or you can draw it yourself) to move through the menu hierarchy. But the pen’s screen can display only one line of text at a time. So not only does every operation take a million fussy little taps, but you have to keep the menu structure in your head, which is fairly hopeless.

You’ll also have a devil of a time understanding some of the concepts, like the difference between a “session” and a “page” or a “notebook” and a “series.” From the user’s guide: “Every page 4 of every Blue Series 1 LiveScribe notebook will contain the same dots. If you write on page 4 of your included Blue Series 1 notebook, it will appear in LiveScribe Desktop as page 4 of Blue Series 1 notebook. If you write on page 4 in a different Blue Series 1 notebook, it will also appear as page 4 of Blue Series 1 notebook in LiveScribe Desktop.” Yikes.

Of course, you’ll never see that paragraph unless you stumble across the Pulse user guide, which is unlikely. It’s not in the box, not on a CD — it’s hiding online. Only one line of fine print on the Getting Started leaflet hints at its existence.

Now, you may wonder how paper computing will take off when its principal weapon exhibits so many 1.0 start-up stumbles. And if you’re like most people, you might regard the Pulse pen as a technology in search of a purpose — or a purchase that will wind up, forgotten, in the back of your gadget drawer.

But if you’re in the Pulse’s target audience — people who regularly take handwritten notes during lectures, classes, meetings, presentations or even concerts — you have a lot to look forward to. Even if the Pulse never becomes more than a one-trick pony, it’s a heckuva good trick. And for society’s long-suffering subset of note takers, at least, it may be the first convincing evidence that the pen has finally gone digital.

David Pogue is a columnist for the New York Times and contributor to CNBC. He can be emailed at: pogue@nytimes.com.