While wandering in the wasteland of North Hall (feels a bit like being in Fallout3), I stumbled on an interesting products that actually received a "Best of SHow 2009" award: the Pulse smartpen by Livescribe.
As you can guess from the name it's a pen and it's, erh, smart. But what does it do? Well, I tried it to find out...
First, it is a rather big and heavy pen, although if you are on the bling side and like massive-gold diamond-studded fountain pens, you'll be at home (apart from the style, of course). Plus, it has a tiny LCD screen along the top of its body.
So, simply write on the page and the pen does two things: it digitises what you write and at the same time records what you hear. Pretty useful for, say, jotting down notes during a conference, an interview or a lesson. But then, you can use a regular pen and a recorder (like an iPhone with its headphones on, the mike is absolutely superb). Yes, but there's more to the Pulse: maybe you are not exactly sure about what was really said about something you wrote down? Simply place the pen back on the first letter of the line you're not sure about, and a tiny speaker on the pen will play back the audio that was recorded at the exact time when you wrote said line. Impressive. I tried it, it does work really well. And the audio recording quality is quite good, although you can also use a pair of optional headphones that include a tiny microphone on each earpiece, to enhance the recording quality.
How does it work? Well, on the tip of the pen there is a tiny infrared camera that records what you write, and on the body of the pen, close to the LCD screen, there is a microphone that catches the audio.
So, there must be a catch, yes? Yes, indeed. You can't just write on any paper: you have to use special notebooks. The notebooks have a special paper, which is covered in tiny pale dots forming a hard to define pattern (they don't actually hinder writing or reading, they feel more like a solid light background color). This tiny dots pattern allow the pen to "know where it is" on a page.
The notebooks have a row of icons (yes, icons on paper) at the bottom of each page, that can be used to start/pause/stop recording, trigger audio playback (with FF/RW and playback speed adjustment), as well a "menu" arrow (more on that later). Note that you are not forced to buy their paper, you can print it yourself on a color printer with the deskptop app.
Once you are done with noting stuff, simply put the pen on its USB craddle (it fits snuggly thanks to a magnet, and the craddle doubles as a battery charger) and it will sync its content to your PC or Mac (the Mac app is really well done (it has just been released), using standard OSX widgets and all). Files saved on your computer can be read by both the PC and Mac versions of the software.
On the desktop app, you can do the same as on the paper, that is click on a word to trigger audio playback from that point, listen to the whole audio transcript, export the audio or your handwritten transcript...
On a side note, the first page of the notebook include a printed calculator interface, that let you do calculations by simply tapping the "keys" with the pen tip, and getting the results on the pen's screen. Livescribe has released an SDK that allows third parties to develop apps for the pen, and they demonstrated a couple, like a live translator: select the app on the pen (by using the "menu arrow" on the page, it acts like a 4-way gamepad) and a language, then tap a word on the page and the pen's screen shows you the translation. Another funny app was a "piano" app: the pen instructs you (via the speaker) to draw a bunch of vertical, then horizontal lines (so that it looks like a part of a piano keyboard), once done, simply tap on the hand-drawn piano keys and the pen plays the notes. Nifty...
Only thing missing in my opinion? Your handwritten notes can only be exported as PDF, there is no recognition software to turn it into text, but it does allow you to search for words, probably by doing speech recognition (but only in english, it seems).
The Smartpen is currently available in two versions: 1GB of storage for $149 and 2GB for $199, only in the USA and Australia for the moment.