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Science, Technology

Geek-Gadget of the Week: The SmartPen!

Writing, just who does that anymore?

Is writing by hand dead?

With so much work being done on computers these days, the poor old pen has pretty much been consigned to the stationary drawer. Technology is now so portable that we can stay ‘connected’ in every conceivable situation: laptops for coffee-shop working, iPads and PDAs while commuting, and Smartphones when we’re out and about.

In our house, important bits of paper also have a habit of getting lost. This would be a typical conversation:

“Where’s that important letter dear?”
“Where did you last see it?”
“On the coffee table, I think!”
“Have you checked the pile of important letters?!” (points to large box of unfiled papers)

My idea of organised paperwork...

So for disorganised people like us, it makes sense to keep computer records of anything important. And if you’re a tech-savvy touch-typer, the keyboard is far quicker than writing something by hand.

Which is all a shame really, because there’s something special about writing by hand: It’s completely different to typing words on a screen, you recognise your handwriting, and those words BELONG to you.

So there’s good news for all the quill-lovers out there because the humble pen has finally come of age! If you think writing is dead, think again: the ‘SmartPen’ is a pen for grown-ups. Loaded with microchips and clever technology, it will even meet the whims of the iPad generation (and it’s a darned sight smaller)…

Two Geeks in a Coffee Shop

Just a pen?

I recently met up with a fellow geek-friend, Tim, in Costa Coffee (Trowbridge isn’t renowned for its selection of coffee-shops). It wasn’t long before he was boasting about his new tech-toy.

“A pen!”

I politely feigned excitement at his bulky-looking biro. But it wasn’t long before Tim’s gizmo had me transfixed in a Gollum-like stare.

What is a SmartPen?

Tim showed me that this was no ordinary pen: it would remember every stroke, word and scribble ever written with it. By plugging it into a computer, all the day’s notes could be uploaded and viewed on screen. And any important hand-written notes could be converted into computer text (which could be edited it in a word processor).

Oooh, lots of bits inside...

“Pretty cool” I said, starting to look impressed…

But there was more; and the geek in me was starting to be unleashed! The pen also has an inbuilt microphone so that audio recordings could be made whilst writing. Great for those espionage activities! (hypothetically speaking, of course).

But the potential for students and secretaries was also obvious: Written notes and spoken words could be played back simultaneously after the event. A student’s scribbles during a lecture could be automatically converted into meaningful text whilst keeping the accompanying audio recording.

I starting to dream: Would it be possible for me to teach entire lessons from the pen? All my notes, illustrations and words given in a lesson could be recorded so that students could replay them at their leisure! No more worrying about making PowerPoint presentations or handouts…

Scribbles can be replayed in real-time, converted to text and linked with audio recordings

It Translates, Calculates and Plays Music!

Me and Tim started to play with some features that might impress your geeky friends:

After writing a word English, the pen could say the word in Spanish! (Impressive, but a Polish version would be more useful in Trowbridge). It would also give the answer to written maths calculations, which is ideal for anyone as arithmetically inept as me.

The best bit?

If you draw a keyboard with it and then tap the keys, the pen will sound notes as if playing a piano (well, albeit a tiny one)…

You can draw sharps and flats (and a bigger keyboard)!

How does a SmartPen Work?

One of the downsides of most Smartpens is that all the added ‘Smart’ features only work when you write on special ‘Smartpen dot paper’. This special paper has tiny dots printed on it, which the pen’s infrared camera ‘sees’ and uses them to know where on the sheet you are writing.

Special 'dot paper' is the key to how a SmartPen works

Thankfully, the paper isn’t very expensive and you can print out your own from a normal inkjet printer.

So is a SmartPen worth getting?

Compared to normal pens, they’re pretty pricey (similar in cost to an iPod nano) but just think: you don’t have to worry about losing that important piece of paper ever again!

The SmartPen is great fun, and it actually does what technology is suppsed to do: Help us do what we would normally do – only better! It is discreet and natural to use, a far cry from showy iPhones, iPads and mp3 players.

I’m tempted to get one, but then knowing me I’d probably leave it in my trouser pocket before putting it in the wash…

Thanks for reading – comments and feedback are warmly welcomed!


Still interested? Find out More:

The market-leader in SmartPens is LiveScribe who do a range of models.

You can get a quick run-down of the different types of SmartPens at TabletTweet

To further explore the virtues of SmartPens for students and business people alike, here is a selection of videos showing what they can do!

About Stuart Farrimond

I love writing about science and health subjects. Strange, because I also teach the same things. I trained as a medical doctor before turning my hand to other things. Shortlisted for The Guardian/Observer for Science Writer of the Year 2011 and editor for Guru Magazine I also like to grow large pumpkins...


2 thoughts on “Geek-Gadget of the Week: The SmartPen!

  1. I’ve had one of these pens for a while now and must say for note taking they are fantastic. The ability to record what is being said and link it to individual words within my notes is fantastic. I would definitely recommend every student gets one of these, well worth the price in the long run!

    Posted by Ed Cooper | February 7, 2011, 2:37 pm

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