A pen with a voice recorder built into it sounds like the sort of gadget you'd discover on late night television, perhaps as a bonus gift for the first 50 customers who call now to purchase a magical set of kitchen knives for only eight easy payments. But if you assume that is all the Livescribe Echo is, then you're in for a very pleasant surprise. As anyone who collects information for a living will tell you, the recording is the easy part, it's pinpointing those crucial moments in a recording quickly during playback that makes all the difference, and this is exactly where the Echo excels.
Bundled with the computerised Echo pen is a pad of ruled paper covered in thousands of tiny dots, which are positioned on each page in a non-repeating formation. These spots act as reference points and collect keyframes of the recording, so when you're playing back your recordings you can fast-forward or rewind the audio by touching the tip of the pen on the corresponding part of the page you took notes while recording. For example, a doctor writes the word "sneezing" as their patient describes cold symptoms during a consultation. All this doctor would have to do is touch the word sneezing with the pen during playback and they'd hear the patient describing these symptoms again from exactly that moment on the recording.
The top of the pen features a 3.5mm headphone socket and a micro USB port.
The Echo pen itself is about the size of a large permanent marker, which is probably larger than most pens you'd choose to write with, but it's not uncomfortable to use. On the top of the pen you'll find a 3.5mm headphone socket and a micro-USB port for charging and connecting to either a PC or Mac. On the front of the pen, under its OLED display, you'll find a pinhole for the microphone and a tiny grille for the external speaker. We didn't expect much from either the microphone or speaker, and we were pleasantly surprised when we found both performed extremely well.
To create an accurate collection of keyframes for the audio recording, the Livescribe pen is also creating a visual representation of the movement of the pen at the same time. When you view this data in the Livescribe desktop software you end up with an interesting multimedia clip; your handwriting appearing on screen just as you wrote it, with the audio recorded playing back at the same time.
For some one collecting data this may not seem like a particularly useful feature, but what about someone trying to share their data or knowledge. A maths teacher could find an interesting use for this feature, solving complex equations while recording a voice-over of their process as they attempt each step of the sum. Alternatively, teachers could ask students to do the same and watch their process to spot shortcomings in their knowledge.