DEMO 2008 is abuzz about the smartpen

January 30, 2008, 9:46 PM UTC
By Michael V. Copeland

PALM DESERT, Calif. — If you have ever been to Sundance, or any film festival for that matter, you are always looking for the film that is getting “buzz,” that inexplicable chatter that attaches itself to a potential breakout movie. If there is a startup and product with “buzz” at the DEMO confab this year, it is LiveScribe.

LiveScribe is a one year-old company based in Oakland, Calif., founded by Jim Marggraff, a five-time entrepreneur and inventor who brought the children’s educational tools LeapPad and the Fly Pentop computer to the world. He’s raised $23 million in venture capital from VantagePoint Venture Partners and others. Marggraff calls the kind of technology he’s spent years working on paper-based computing, and he’s showing off a pen/computer that takes it to the next, and very useful level.

Dubbed a “smartpen,” Livescribe’s fountain-pen-sized device is essentially a mini-computer with the same processor as many mobile phones, a small OLED screen, flash memory, and an infrared camera all wrapped around an actual ballpoint pen. Once you start writing on special paper, the camera begins to capture and digitize your pen-strokes. It can be text or a graphic. A built-in microphone can also record the sounds associated with the strokes.

So, for example, as I was interviewing Marggraff, I was taking notes with the pen and recording the conversation. The words I wrote were synched to the audio. After uploading the session to a computer by docking the pen in a cradle, I could tap on any word on the page and the associated conversation started spilling out of the computer’s speakers. You might also make a sketch of something, a bird for you birding nuts, hit record, yammer on about what the bird was doing and where you were when you saw it etc. Go back later, tap on that drawing of the bird, and the breathless speech you gave starts replaying. Cool stuff.

The key is the paper, which is covered with microdots, spaced about 0.3 millimeters apart. While you are writing or drawing, the high-speed infrared camera captures and records the path of the tip of the pen as it passes by all these microdots, sort of like two-dimensional GPS. The path is recreated as your handwriting or a drawing. Since each page in an individual notebook has a unique set of dots, the smartpen assigns the content unique addresses and knows that the drawing of a bird is associated with this particular recording or some other data.

The uses for this kind of computing are seemingly vast, and LiveScribe has an open platform to let developers dream up a multitude of applications and offer them from the LiveScribe site. Transcription and translation services are already in the works. The obvious users and initial market Marggraff is targeting are note-taking college students, lawyers, journalists and creative types always jotting something down during meetings or presentations. The only downside is you need to have a supply of that special paper on hand. That would be a deal-killer for me, if Marggraff were planning on charging an exorbitant amount for it, but he says the paper will be sold at the same cost as any other notebook, and you will be able to even print out your own micro-dot sheets for free (with approved printers) very soon. The pens themselves, which go on sale in March — first online at LiveScribe’s site and then at some larger retailers — will sell for $200 for a 2GB version and $150 for a 1GB model.

Marggraff expects to make his money off the hardware and a revenue share with the applications and services that he anticipates will run on top of the LiveScribe platform. “This is a new kind of computing,” he says. “My goal in a decade is to have 1 billion smart pens out there.”

Out in the hall outside the LiveScribe demonstration, I overheard Joseph Hawilo, who runs a pharmaceutical company in Detroit, talking like he was sale No. 1. “I am a bad note-taker, and I think it’s rude to use my laptop during meetings,” Hawilo says. “With this I can jot down key words and record the rest. I definitely am getting one.”

See, that’s buzz baby.