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August 24, 2010
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Tim Dees Police Tech & Gear
with Tim Dees

The new Echopen from Livescribe is a note-taking marvel

An add-on package called MyScript converts Livescribe sessions into PDF documents with editable, searchable text

Note-taking is a critical skill for investigators, students and others who need to preserve the essential points from a conversation. The Pulse pen from Livescribe was a tool that made that task easier, but the device had some flaws. Livescribe’s new Echo™ “smartpen” has fixed those problems and improved on the original.

What is a Smartpen?
Livescribe’s technology — licensed from a company called Anoto — isn’t especially well known. It starts with special paper that has a pattern of tiny dots printed in the background — they’re so small and faint that most people can see them only with a magnifying glass. Smartpens like the Echo have a camera in the tip that reads those dots and tells it where it is on the paper — page and position. As you write, each stroke is plotted and recorded according to those dots. At the same time, the pen is making an audio recording of whatever is going on, and associating that part of the recording with the pen strokes made at that moment.

When the note-taking session is done, you can touch the tip of the pen to any part of your notes, and the audio made at that second will play back. Didn’t quite get that comment written down? Listen to it as many times as you like. Plugging the pen into a computer with the Livescribe software copies each session to the computer. If you bring up a session, you’ll see your page with all the notes in green. Click on any portion, and the audio from that moment plays back, and the green pen strokes fill in with black as the note-taking progressed. The computer files are transferable to anyone with the Livescribe software, which is free for download.

Sessions remain stored on the pen until you delete them. Once they’re deleted, touching the pen tip to your notes won’t play back any audio, but you’ve presumably uploaded those sessions to your computer by then. Deleting sessions frees up memory for more sessions. How much memory each session takes up depends on the user-selectable quality setting, but one gigabit (GB) of memory equals roughly one hour of audio and notes. The older model Pulse smartpens have 2GB of memory. The newer Echo smartpens come in 4GB and 8GB models.

High Marks for Customer Service
My first 1GB Pulse smartpen had battery problems — a look at the Livescribe user forums indicates I wasn’t the only one with that experience. The pen wouldn’t hold more than about 20 minutes worth of charge. Even though I was 18 months past purchase (and six months past warranty), Livescribe swapped out my pen for a 2GB model, shipping paid both ways, free. The new one works perfectly.

Hearing “special paper” causes most cops to think, “There’s where they get you,” but the paper isn’t all that costly. A spiral-bound starter notebook of 100 sheets (200 pages) of 8.5 x 11 paper comes with the pen. Each additional notebook is about $7.00 from Amazon.com, or you can get a pack of four for $20.00. You can buy other notebook sizes and formats, and even print your own compatible paper in any format you like with a color inkjet printer capable of 600 dpi resolution. When you order extra supplies, get a pack of ink refills (five for $6.00), as each one lasts about 50 pages for me. Smartpens and supplies are also sold through Staples, Target, and Best Buy stores.

When I’ve showed the pen to curious people (and you will find it attracts a lot of attention), several remarked, “Now, if you had something that converted handwriting into text, that would be something.” Something is here. A $29.95 add-on package called MyScript converts Livescribe sessions into PDF documents with editable, searchable text. You can try a fully-functional version for free for 30 days. On my blog, I have links to a page of notes taken during a workshop, with the MyScript-converted text below.

About the author

Tim Dees is a writer, editor, trainer, and former law enforcement officer. After 15 years as a police officer with the Reno Police Department and elsewhere in Northern Nevada, Tim taught criminal justice as a full-time professor and instructor at colleges in Wisconsin, West Virginia, Georgia, and Oregon.

He was also a regional training coordinator for the Oregon Dept. of Public Safety Standards & Training, providing in-service training to 65 criminal justice agencies in central and eastern Oregon.

Tim has written more than 300 articles for nearly every national law enforcement publication in the United States, and is the author of The Truth About Cops, published by Hyperink Press. In 2005, Tim became the first editor-in-chief for Officer.com, moving to the same position for LawOfficer.com at the beginning of 2008. He now writes on applications of technology in law enforcement from his home in SE Washington state.

Tim holds a bachelor’s degree in biological science from San José State University, a master’s degree in criminal justice from The University of Alabama, and the Certified Protection Professional credential from ASIS International. He serves on the executive board of the Public Safety Writers Association.

Dees can be reached at tim.dees@policeone.com.

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