Technology September 2010

The Pen Gets Mightier

One entrepreneur’s latest effort to revolutionize how we think, learn, play music, and order coffee in Chinese
Livescribe Inc.

Every few years, an invention appears that makes all previous life seem backward. The digital camera is an obvious example. I might be nostalgic for old albums full of glossy prints. But the idea that it could take days before you saw how a photo had “turned out,” that you could snap only so many pictures before the roll of film was full, that the only way to share pictures was through the mail—these assumptions are hard even to imagine now.

For my own workaday purposes, the most useful recent invention has been the Livescribe Pulse pen, which I bought just after its introduction early last year and now can hardly be without. It looks like a somewhat bulky, cigar-shaped metallic writing instrument. Inside it contains a high-end audio recording system and assorted computer circuitry. When you turn it on, it starts recording what you are hearing—and also matches what is being said, instant by instant (in fact, using photos it takes 72 times per second), with notes or drawings that you’re making in a special Livescribe notebook. The result is a kind of indexing system for an audio stream. If a professor is explaining a complex equation during a lecture, you write “equation,” or anything else—and later when you click on that term, either in the original notebook or on images of the pages transferred to your computer screen, it plays back that exact part of the discussion. (Works on both Macs and PCs.) For me this means instant access to the three interesting sentences—I just write “interesting!” in the notebook or put a star—in the typical hour-long journalistic interview. The battery lasts for several full days’ use between recharges, and the pen can hold dozens of hours of recordings.

Pens cost $129 and up, depending on capacity, and some 400,000 have been sold—two of them to me; I lost my first one in a taxi in Beijing. This summer Livescribe introduced a new model, the Echo, with a slightly thinner, futuristic-looking design and some new features, like the ability to transmit marked-up notebook pages over a computer network, so they serve as a shared “whiteboard” for remote meetings.

Through the years, the real reason I have liked writing about technological innovations has been having an excuse to talk with the people behind the devices or programs—to hear about what problems they were trying to solve, what nonobvious challenges they faced in making their gadget work, how they became inventors and entrepreneurs. In Livescribe’s case the man behind the technology is Jim Marggraff, an MIT-trained engineer in his early 50s who, like nearly all such people I have interviewed, radiates uncontrollable parental joy at his creation. Some famous tech titans are forever associated with one company—Jobs with Apple, Gates and Ballmer with Microsoft. Marggraff is of the serial-entrepreneur camp. He was one of several founders of the very successful networking company StrataCom, acquired by Cisco for $4.5 billion. More recently he was an executive with LeapFrog, whose LeapPad interactive books, which respond with voices when children touch words or pictures, are (according to Marggraff) in three-quarters of all U.S. households with small children. Many voices featured in the books are those of Marggraff and his son.

Marggraff’s ongoing fascination has been with technology’s effect on how we think, learn, and communicate. He designed a talking-globe device because, he says, he was appalled at how little Americans knew about world geography. He believes that future improvements in melding visual and audio information will help teachers teach, students learn, and groups collaborate. In creating the Livescribe pen, he delved into cognitive psychology—including a study showing that people are disproportionately influenced by gee-whiz features they can show off to their friends. The pen has several. For instance: a translator that lets you write out “One coffee, please” and have the results read out in Mandarin, Spanish, etc. A calculator that lets you write out a math problem and click on it for the answer. And what I think of as a notebook orchestra: you sketch a crude grid representing eight keys on a piano and it becomes a music synthesizer, letting you tap out tunes and hear them “played” by piano, steel drums, or other instruments.

“People like to be amazed,” Marggraff said as he played a tune. Yes we do.

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James Fallows is an Atlantic national correspondent; his blog is at jamesfallows .theatlantic.com. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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