Nearly six years ago, a startup company named Livescribe set out to transform old-fashioned pen–and–paper note–taking by appending written words with spoken words. Its then–new Pulse “smartpen” could see, hear and record both whatever was scrawled onto a page and any sounds that were audible at the same time, using a tiny camera and microphone built into the pen in conjunction with a special variety of “dot paper” that controlled how the pen worked. Tapping a section of the handwritten notes called up the associated audio, which then played back through a speaker in the pen. The notes and audio also were transferable to computer software or to an online account hosted by Livescribe for playback, searching, organizing, and sharing. An app for the iPhone, iPod touch and iPad, introduced later, made the online account accessible on-the-go.
It all worked wonderfully and the Livescribe smartpen became an invaluable tool for journalists, students, and other obsessive note-takers. I have been an ardent user of the Pulse since its debut in 2008, and it has dramatically improved the way I work. With the pen capturing everything that’s said to me in an interview, I no longer worry about writing fast enough to put everything to paper and exact quotes are always a pen tap or a mouse click away.
But even as Livescribe brought forth new and improved smartpens and software in the following years — including a second–generation pen named Echo that I have not used — its products did not keep pace with fast–evolving smartphones, tablets and apps, nor with changes in computer operating systems. In fact, Livescribe’s dedicated software for Apple Macintosh computers has not been fully compatible with the last two generations of the Mac’s OSX operating system (versions 10.7 Lion and 10.8 Mountain Lion), and has worked poorly with them as a result.
“The whole concept [was] pre–iPhone, pre–iPad…PC–era, with this desktop software that you love to hate,” said Gilles Bouchard, chairman and CEO of Livescribe in Oakland, Calif., noting that the first Pulse pen was announced before the iPhone was released in 2007. “Unfortunately, the company stayed on that track,” he added.
So now Livescribe is taking corrective action, by leapfrogging into the latest cloud technology trend with the recent launch of a new smartpen named Sky. It resembles the Echo but boasts revised electronic innards, including Wi–Fi technology that is used to wirelessly sync the pen with another company’s app named Evernote, which stores all of the Sky’s recordings in an online (cloud) account and makes them accessible, shareable and searchable through nearly any smartphone, tablet or computer.
Livescribe’s new goal with Sky, Bouchard said, is to turn the smartpen into “the best companion for all these new things” in the smartphone and tablet era.
Sky replaces Echo, and Evernote replaces Livescribe’s own computer software, app, and online service.
Plus, additional cloud services for Sky recordings are planned, including one that will automatically transcribe the recorded audio into text.
Better syncing…but new faults emerge
With Pulse and Echo, after completing a note–taking session, the user would connect the device to a computer with a USB cable, triggering Livescribe Desktop software to launch and initiate a synchronization process. This created what Livescribe calls a pencast, an interactive digital copy of the notes and audio captured with the smartpen, which would be saved on the computer in the software. In turn, Livescribe Desktop could be used to upload a pencast to the user’s online My Livescribe account, which was accessible through either a Web browser or Livescribe’s Pencast Player app.
Pointing and clicking on the pencast page’s virtual ink displayed on the screen would begin playing the audio recorded at that point in the note-taking session — the same as tapping on the real ink in the same place on the dot paper page.
Sky eliminates most of those separate steps and greatly streamlines the synchronization process.
Once connected to a Wi–Fi network, the smartpen will automatically upload a just-completed note-taking session — or a batch of queued sessions completed while the smartpen’s Wi–Fi was switched off — to a Livescribe “cloud server,” Bouchard explained. This cloud server then forwards images of the session pages to the user’s Evernote account.
Alternatively, Sky also can be connected to a computer with a USB cable, triggering the launch of a Livescribe Helper app, which is used to manually sync the smartpen with the Livescribe cloud server and thence the Evernote account.
When the sync is completed, the page images are accessible through Evernote apps on a smartphone, tablet or computer, or through a Web browser directed to Evernote.com.
Yet, because they’re only images of pages, when the user taps or clicks on the virtual ink to retrieve the matching audio, Evernote turns back to the Livescribe cloud server to launch a linked Livescribe Player app on the user’s device. This app then pulls the associated notes and audio from the Livescribe cloud server and starts the pencast.
The result is a disjointed user experience that requires an always–on Internet connection for the Livescribe Player to work. Additionally, there is an annoying delay before the pencast appears, while its contents are fetched.
I became accustomed to the disjointedness with continued usage, and Bouchard said the company plans to move its Livescribe Player function to Evernote’s cloud server, which should reduce the latency.
Worse, Livescribe’s new cloud-centric paradigm and Evernote partnership engendered other, more significant faults.
For example, whereas clicking or tapping anywhere in a pencast within Livescribe Desktop, My Livescribe or the Livescribe Pencast Player app would immediately bring forth the matching audio for that specific place in the written notes, the same is not true with Evernote. Instead, the new Livescribe Player app always launches at the beginning of a pencast, on the first page, no matter the user’s selection. Getting to the desired place and audio then requires extra navigation within the Livescribe Player.
Moreover, in My Livescribe, all the pages in a Pulse or Echo pencast could be grouped together and saved in a Pencast PDF file with embedded audio. And this file could be printed, shared by e–mail, or even uploaded to an Evernote account with the embedded audio intact.
By comparison, Evernote allows Sky page images to be grouped together or “merged” for printing or sharing, but this doesn’t create a PDF file. Also, the merging process hides all subsequent page images behind the first. So, in the user’s Evernote account, a multi–page merged session appears to contain only one page until the image of that page is clicked and the hidden pages are revealed. Most problematic, the merging breaks the functionality of the Livescribe Player; tapping or clicking on an image of a merged page opens the Player, but it doesn’t present any virtual ink or audio.
Not merging page images necessitates issuing separate print commands for each, or individually selecting multiple pages to print at once.
What’s more, Evernote won’t print full–size copies of each page image. Instead, it prints a reduced–size copy with file information appended beneath it, and this can result in five pages of notes yielding 10 printed pages when the appended information carries over onto an additional page.
Future updates or new features for Sky are expected to fix some of those deficiencies, according to Livescribe.
An update that changes the two-step process of navigating to the desired audio segment in the Livescribe Player is expected to be released in the second quarter of this year. The process was intended by the software’s designers, who did not consider it a problem, but “based on customer feedback, we are updating the playback feature in Livescribe Player to now start audio playback from the specific page clicked in Evernote,” Livescribe said in response to an inquiry.
The inability to create Pencast PDFs from Sky notes may not be corrected by an update, but an alternative may be offered. Adobe Flash is a key underlying technology in Pencast PDFs and, “given the continued issues around the use of Flash technology, we are evaluating other format options, what may be better for our customers,” Livescribe said.
It must be Evernote software developers who correct the problems associated with merging Livescribe image pages, Livescribe said.
But the issue of reduced–size page image printing from within Evernote may be confronted by Livescribe itself. “We are investigating the use case and customer demand to determine if this is something we will address,” the company said.
Enhancements add value
Still, other capabilities add to Sky’s appeal and value.
These include a planned handwriting-–to–text transcription option, and the planned ability to send selected pages and audio directly to Google Drive, Dropbox, Facebook or the user’s e-mail address directly from the smartpen.
Handwriting–to–text transcription will be enabled by an optional application from software developer Vision Objects that is being developed in cooperation with Livescribe and is expected to debut some time in the first half of this year. The send–from–pen function is expected to be available this year, but Livescribe won’t say exactly when.
A voice–to–text transcription capability is already available for Sky with a service named TranscribeMe, which is an add-on for Evernote.
In addition, Livescribe mobile software development kits (SDKs) aimed at app developers will enable Sky to forge a direct connection to a tablet or smartphone on the same Wi-Fi network, and to stream notes and audio to the device in realtime as they’re written on dot paper and recorded by the smartpen’s microphone. It’s conceivable that note-taking, drawing, annotation, collaboration, textbook or journal apps will take advantage of these SDKs, Livescribe said.
A small number of developers was pre-qualified by Livescribe and earlier received a pre-release version of the SDK designed for Apple’s iOS mobile operating system (OS). The final SDK for iOS is expected to be released in the second quarter of this year, the company said.
An SDK for the Android mobile OS is expected to follow in the second half of this year.
Sky has one other overarching limitation related to this, however: It will not connect with a Wi-Fi network that requires logging in through a website, such as the networks offered at cafés, restaurants, hotels, airports and other venues.
Pricing and Availability
Three versions of Sky are offered with different storage capacities, and can be found at Best Buy, Fry’s and Apple stores, at many college campus bookstores, and online at Livescribe.com, BestBuy.com and Amazon.com.
A 2GB smartpen that can store about 200 hours of audio costs $169.95; a 4GB smartpen that can store about 400 hours of audio costs $199.95; and an 8GB smartpen that can store about 800 hours of audio — available only at Best Buy and Livescribe.com — costs $249.95. The last is packaged in a “propack” that also includes a one–year subscription to Evernote Premium service (normally $45) and an accessory “smartpen portfolio” (normally $24.95), which holds the smartpen and an A5-size Livescribe dot paper notebook.
Livescribe sells a wide variety of dot paper notebooks, journals and pads. Prices range from $8.95 for one 150–page three–subject college ruled notebook to $24.95 for a four–pack of 100–page single–subject college ruled notebooks. Another choice is to print your own dot paper with certain printers.
It’s also noteworthy that every Sky smartpen comes with increased Evernote account capacity, bringing the monthly data upload allowance for a free account to 560MB from 60MB — with the additional 500MB dedicated to pencasts.
The Bottom Line
Sky is an upgrade worth the price for anyone currently using one of Livescribe’s older smartpens, despite drawbacks. Its streamlined syncing process saves time and boosts productivity, and updates could eliminate most of its initial deficiencies.
New users will marvel at what a smartpen can do, and are sure to be even more pleased when new capabilities are introduced.
I will still be using interview pencasts I created with my Pulse for some time to come, but I’ve now retired that old smartpen. Sky is my new favorite tool for journalistic pursuits.