August 24, 2007 4:00 AM PDT

Is the digital pen mightier?

Is the digital pen mightier?
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For decades, tech companies have been trying to create a digital pen that appeals to the masses. But after years of effort, the world isn't exactly overrun with high-tech quills.

A new crop of companies, however, say it's too soon to write off the idea.

This week, Irvine, Calif.-based Iogear announced plans for a digital pen that can work with standard paper. Last month, educational computer maker LeapFrog introduced the FlyFusion, its second go at the digital pen. And later this year, Silicon Valley start-up LiveScribe plans to introduce a $200 device that can not only take digital notes, but also synchronize them with an audio recording.

The latest bunch are a far cry from the earliest attempts to add a brain to the standard Bic. But the question remains: Will these new devices be more than a curiosity? Or will they, like their predecessors, find themselves quickly relegated to the back of desk drawers or spend their days as expensive paperweights?

Digital pens

The quest for a digital pen people actually want has lived alongside another perennial tech pursuit--getting people to navigate traditional computers using the pen as an input device. While Microsoft has managed to create a few converts with its Tablet PC and many graphic designers use pen tablets for their work, the overwhelming majority of people still do their hunting and pecking via the venerable keyboard.

As for the standalone digital pen, it has been around, in its modern incarnation, since Sweden's Anoto developed a special kind of paper that allows a pen with a built-in camera to easily track itself.

Logitech has been using that approach since 2002, when it introduced the Io digital pen. It has since added handwriting recognition and Bluetooth wireless abilities.

Still, it has yet to really take off. "It's a small part of our business," said Logitech spokeswoman Nancy Morrison.

The allure of such devices is undeniable. The idea of a pen, only better, inherently sounds good. However, there have always been significant trade-offs.

That's still true with the latest crop. Both the FlyFusion and LiveScribe devices require special paper.

Brian Wells, the senior product marketing manager for Iogear, said digital pens have always required special paper, special pens or both. The benefit of the company's $99 Digital Scribe, he said, is that it can work with any pen and write anywhere. "Any paper, a sheet of paper, a sticky note, masking tape," Wells said. "Heck, you could probably attach it to the top of a wall."

Iogear's pen, however, must be connected to a computer while the notes are being taken. That's a big drawback, because most people who have their computer with them might just use that to take notes. (Iogear hopes to eventually add an untethered version.)

Wells said there is still a big market, such as college students in classes where they need to take down more than text, things like diagrams that can best be done with a pen and paper.

LiveScribe agrees, but takes the notion a step further. One of its big selling points is that it can record audio and then synchronize it with the handwritten notes. Microsoft offers a similar feature for computer-based notetakers that use its OneNote application, though the LiveScribe pen offers the benefit of being able to work without being tethered to a PC.

The device is expected to cost less than $200 and make its debut before year's end, the company said when it first discussed the product at the D: All Things Digital conference in May. LiveScribe declined to provide an update or comment for this article.

LeapFrog, meanwhile, introduced its $79 FlyFusion at the end of July. The device is a sequel to Leapfrog's first Fly. The last generation was a standalone device that used specially coded paper to enable youngsters to draw a calculator and then add up some numbers or draw a piano and then play music.

The new pen is cheaper, $79 versus $99, and about 25 percent smaller than its predecessor. "It really looked and felt like a toy," senior brand manager Chad Weiner said of the first Fly. Still, Weiner said, the original "sold surprisingly well," though he would not give specific sales figures.

This time around, LeapFrog is aiming at slightly older youths, adding the ability to take digital notes and then connect them back to a Windows PC, where they can be either saved or e-mailed as images, or converted to text (with the results varying widely based on the penmanship of the author).

For Iogear's Wells, the digital pen has been a labor of love. He's tried out devices since 1992, when he got his first one after graduating high school. That first model, which he took with him to Cypress College in Southern California, cost $300, required special paper and was tethered to a big plastic piece that sat under the paper.

Over time, though, the technology has improved. Wells said Iogear connected a couple years back with a chipmaker that had the technology that would work with any ink or paper.

"We thought it was about time," he said. "We thought we can really make a run now."

One thing all the new products have going for them is that they come at a time where Windows' support for digital ink has never been better. With Windows XP, only the stylus-based Tablet PC edition really supported pen input. With Windows Vista, though, the operating system supports more kinds of ink, including that from tablets like those from Wacom, as well as things like Iogear's Digital Scribe.

"Everything just kind of fell together," Wells said.

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14 comments

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I'll never use a digital pen
Call me a Luddite, by why must everything be digital? "Digital" pens will never make it in the marketplace -- the older generation doesn't want them, the young kids don't know what to do with them. Digital pens are bulky and unbalanced, made by people who know a lot about computers but absolutely nothing about pens, making them difficult to use for anything other than doodling smiley faces. And special paper? Oy vey!

Nothing compares to the feel of a handmade nib sliding across a sheet of fine bond paper. It is a pleasure I learned early in life and even now I still carry a Sailor fountain pen with a handmade nib. So it dates me. So what? You'd be surprised at how many authors still write their works on pen and paper before transferring them to digital media (J. K. Rowling, for one).

Besides, digitizing your writings just exposes it to theft by hacker. It is far easier to keep things private by writing them down on paper and locking them away securely in a cabinet or desk drawer. This is what I do.
Posted by eCurmudgeon (21 comments )
Reply Link Flag
OK: you're a Luddite!
Fountain pens are fun -- you feel so eloquent, but after using one in college for my first paper the prof's response was, "Very nice, but next time either type or print, since your handwriting is difficult to read." Ironically, my handwriting is fairly legible. But people are not used to reading handwriting anymore.

Eventually digital pens will be made that have a very nice feel (if they haven't already). Then, non-famous authors without their own secretaries to type for them will be able to "write their works on pen and paper before transferring them to digital media."

And if you encrypt your important files, hackers won't be able to steal them even if they break into your house and get access to your non-networked PC. You can't do that with handwritten stuff.
Posted by dmm (336 comments )
Link Flag
Have to agree...
...I wouldn't even consider a digital pen until it is based on a
fountain pen, rather than a ball point, and made by someone who
knows pens, (Schaefer would be my first choice, Mont Blanc would,
also, be a good choice). Writing with a ball point is pedestrian and
uninspired. Writing with a fountain pen really allows you to express
yourself.

I am digital everything, but I will never give up my fountain pen!!!!!
Posted by MTGrizzly (353 comments )
Link Flag
What a waste!!!
If you're using paper use a pencil or pen. The only value of a digital pen is so you can draw a image on a computer screen. Anything else is a waste of time, money and basic logic.

Instead of a special pen, provide a software program that would permit someone to draw using their mouse. Oh darn, that's right they already have those.
Posted by shanedr (155 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Short-sighted
You must misunderstand what is perhaps the greatest advantage of a digital pen or tablet. They allow you to take notes and sketch diagrams, etc, WHILE AWAY FROM THE COMPUTER, which can later be transferred to the computer for storage, insertion into applications or distribution, etc.
With handwriting recognition software the digitised version of the written text can be automatically turned into editable text, avoiding the need to type it up yourself (whether via keyboard or voice recognition). This can reduce the workload by half or greater depending on your normal transcription rate.

With good recogniion accuracy the uses are therefore clearly numerous but one simple example is being able to take handwritten notes in a meeting or interview, which then need to go into a typed report, without subsequently having to transcribe them yourself.

Another example of their value is the fact that in some interview situations the use of a laptop would create a barrier between the client and interview. Being able to handwrite avoids this problem. Being able to use a digital pen could be seen as the equivalent of using a laptop remotely.
Posted by Paulosse (2 comments )
Link Flag
Either you never read the article (and don't understand the concept of these pens) or you're simply short-sighted!

"The only value of a digital pen is so you can draw a image on a computer screen. Anything else is a waste of time, money and basic logic."

The Livescribe products allow me to write and draw anything on my notepad, without the need for my laptop, and then upload every page, exactly as written/drawn, to the desktop software for storage. I can retain every page within the Livescribe software or I can use OCR to convert my notes to MS Word format. I also have an audio file of everymeeting I've attended. If miss anything in the minutes I can revert back to the exact point in the audio file at which I wrote something.

In my profession (Project Management) communication and documentation is key to success. Having everything in digital format along with audio is without a doubt one of the best concepts I've come across in years.
Posted by skasey (2 comments )
Link Flag
Don't knock it until you try it
I am in the healthcare industry and the io2 is indispensible. I don't
have to keep the paper notes once the download is complete. I
have been using io digital pen products for five years now.
Posted by jypeterson (181 comments )
Reply Link Flag
New Software Needed
I think in order for the digital pen to take off some new software needs to be written to take advantage of special features of a digital pen.

For example you need a word processor that can allows you to rearrange and edit text _without_ having to apply optical character recognition first. Of vital importance is the ability to draw an oval (or other shape) around a set of words, _drag them on the screen_ and then drop them where you like. With just about all word processors in existence the text disappears from the screen during a cut and paste operation.

Second, I believe for a pen based computer a quality mind mapping program should be included. In order to use a mind mapping program effectively the screen should be large, preferably somewhere in the range of 8 1/2 * 11 inch screen.
Posted by mars729 (3 comments )
Reply Link Flag
AceCad have already done it
The AceCad tablet alreqdy allows you to use a digital pen with normal paper. They also have handwriting recognition software.

Don't know how accurate it is, but at least it eliminates the impractical & costly requirement to use special paper.
Posted by Paulosse (2 comments )
Reply Link Flag
can these pens be used to input free-hand 'text' (ie not transcribed, recognized, etc) into Windows Messenger, such that the recipient sees what you drew?
Posted by jamesrav (2 comments )
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Today there are many digital pens now on the market that have a much smoother design much like a regular pen. I have a LogiPen Notes digital pen and it even uses regular ink. So while I can write with it on regular paper and have my notes handwritten, it allows to transfer my notes to digital format incase I need to type it or save it on the computer. Lets face it we use the computer for everything today! So I can have my notes as is, if I want or Ican also convert it into typed text and save it on my pc. I love it. You never really know until you try it. The one I got isn't too expensive. You can check it out www.logipen.com
Posted by missgadgets (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
I just got my Logipen Notes and I'm really happy with it. I love how I don't need any special paper. The handwriting recognition works like a charm. I just write my note, upload it to my pc, then I edit it on MS Word. Can't get any easier!!! Look it up at http://www.logipen.com
Posted by oripreis (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
I have used all kinds of digital pen products, all sorts of tablet devices and digital papers. The best solution i found was the Logipen. you can't always get all the benefits from just one product, but the fact that Logipen allows free writing with ink and doesn't have the need to buy reoccurring supply from the vendor made truly a huge advantage over the others.
I use it both as a hand writing recognition device and as the tablet one, which works great for graphics on my computer.
Posted by ilan.peer (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
Hello dear Ilan, i want to reach online. from a few weeks i am looking for some efficient product. Would you suggest me for what and where i have go for.
Thank you so much.
Regards
siman
Posted by Siman_B (1 comment )
Link Flag
 

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