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Review: Livescribe Pulse Smartpen as a DM Tool

February 22, 2011 | | Comments 1

I know this is a game site, but sometimes I go off the reservation if I find something useful to gamers. In this case, it is a Livescribe 2 GB Pulse Smartpen.  I received my Pulse as a Christmas gift and found it very game-useful and worthy of a post.  The Pulse is a large barrel pen with the ability to record both your handwriting and stereo audio. More than that,  it links the audio to the written text!  The pen has three key components; a standard ball-point pen, an infrared camera and a stereo audio recorder.  As you write, the camera captures your pen strokes and records them. It records them precisely, so every stray mark and doodle you put on the paper appears on the digital page as well.

Once recorded, you dock the pen on a small USB cradle and it uploads to your computer as black lines on a white background. The dock charges the pen as well Here is a shot from my digital notebook that I use for my Nightbane game.

This image is one of the pages after I click on it.

Yes, my handwriting is actually that bad.  I learned to type for a reason.

While a great tool for writing, the Pulse really shines when you take notes during an interview or lecture. Activating the audio recorder links the audio track to what you are writing at that moment!  If you want to go back and hear what was said at the very moment you were writing a specific word or drawing an image, just tap it with the pen tip. I have the two gigabyte version, so I can up to 200 hours of audio and 32,000 pages of notes combined.  Here is a video demonstrating this feature.

Livescribe Demo Video

The pen has a built-in mic and speaker, but using the included headphones (with built-in mics) provides better quality  playback and higher-quality stereo recording.

The PC/Mac software package offers digital versions of the recorded pages and you just click on the word and the associated audio plays.

I had good success using the Pulse with my current Nightbane campaign. Not only do I have a digital copy of my campaign made automatically, I use the Pulse during game sessions to take notes about the plot and major events, secure in the knowledge I will have it later on my computer.  It also allows me to brainstorm and plan without a laptop and enjoy the freedom of hand-drawn maps for the various encounters. I am very pleased with my Pulse and will use it for both RPG gaming and interviews with publishers at Gen Con and GTS.

As much as I enjoy my Smartpen, there is a major caveat with this device: Smartpens need special paper.  The notebooks come in several sizes and include the printed commands to start/stop playback, the scientific calculator and other commands you execute with a tap.  You may write on any piece of paper with the ballpoint, but Smartpens can only record writing and link the writing to audio when using special paper. Paper that is a sort of off-blue color from the thousands of tiny dots used by the IR camera to track the ballpoint strokes.  It is more expensive than standard notebook paper, but readily available at Best Buy and Amazon. For the DIY gamer, a decent quality printer can churn out the dotted paper as well.

Ink comes in short cartridges that I could not find at my local Staples. It appears they ink cartridges are only available from Livescribe for about $1.00 per cartridge.

Overall I love with my new game tool and am considering upgrading to the faster, sleeker and memory-enhanced Echo Smartpen (800 hours of recording!)

Trask, The Last Tyromancer

Full Disclosure: I receive no compensation for this post and received my Smartpen as a retail-purchased gift.

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About the Author: Trask is a long-time gamer, world traveler and history buff. He hopes that his scribblings will both inform and advance gaming as a hobby.

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