UCSC grad works his way behind the scenes of the latest note-taking technology
“Let me show you.” Robbie Suk shoves a hand deep into his briefcase, and after a moment of blind digging, pulls out a thick, coal-colored pen.
We were talking about the pen —not just any pen, but a Livescribe mobile computing pen— when I got lost in his technological jargon and said, “Yes, but what can it do?”
“It does a million things,” says Suk, youthful enthusiasm radiating from his sky blue eyes. A demo was in order. Pen in hand and pressed to a blank page in a notepad of special dot paper, he begins to unleash the magic.
“The main feature is a program called Paper Replay,” he says, tapping a small picture of a record button printed on the bottom of each page. “Now the pen is instantly recording everything you write, and everything you say.”
The program takes the age-old concept of note taking to a whole new level, recording everything the user writes on the page, as well as all of the surrounding audio. Suk taps the “stop” button and sets the pen in what looks like a cell-phone charging dock, which he then plugs in to the USB port of his laptop. The page we had been writing on appears on screen. By clicking anywhere on the page, audio playback begins of what was being said at that point in the recording.
Suk, who graduated with a degree in Computer Engineering from UC Santa Cruz last year, wishes he had owned a Livescribe during his college days. The product didn’t launch until March of last year, and he didn’t begin working for the Oakland-based company until after he graduated. He used the pen in a class when he went back for his masters later in the year and saw immediate results.
“It really changed the way I took notes because I could pay attention in class and listen to what the professor was saying without scrambling to write everything down,” he says, recalling its usefulness in Computer Engineering 202. “I got an A, and I never get As. It was an excellent tool.”
College students are a part of what Suk refers to as Livescribe’s core market, or the people who “you don’t have to sell it to because they already need and want it.” As a student himself, he found great use in the Mylivescribe website, a space where one can upload, store, post and share their notes. To those outside the core market, the product may seem like just “a really big pen,” but the company is adamant about its necessity in certain professions.
“Lawyers, doctors, and journalists, obviously,” Suk says, gesturing to me as I frantically scribble notes the old-fashioned way, “and business people. If you’re at a conference, you have a very limited amount of time to soak up a lot of knowledge.”
The tagline for the product is “Never Miss a Word,” but recording notes is only the beginning.
Bag of Tricks
The word “beer” is written on the notepad. With one tap of the tip of the pen, a clear, mechanical voice pronounces the Spanish translation.
I write “please.” I tap, then I hear, “Por Favor.”
I write “52 x 24 =” and tap where the answer should be. Without pausing to think, the voice in my pen says, “1,248,” and the number also appears on the pen’s thin, rectangular screen above small speakers.
The computer-guised-as-a-pen that Suk shows me is equipped with a demo translation application that allows the user to write a word in English and have it repeated back to them in Spanish, Mandarin, Arabic or Swedish.
Until the Livescribe team releases the software for a complete translation application, this function only works for 21 English words. In the meantime, Suk says that the pen’s java layer makes it possible for tech-savvy owners to write their own programs.
The image of a calculator is printed inside the front cover of every Livescribe dot paper notebook (which come in a variety of shapes and sizes), acting as a real, functional calculator. The calculator application also works when a user writes mathematical equation longhand.
Notes, foreign languages, math problems —the Livescribe is helpful, but it also aims to be fun.
Suk taps through the menu options and selects “Piano.” The little man in the pen is back, bossy as ever: “Draw your piano: first draw nine vertical lines.” The pen pauses while Suk does just that, making a “boink” sound with each line he draws. “Connect the lines at the top and bottom.” “Boink, boink” “Tap the keys to play.” Suk adds sharps and flats to his freshly drawn instrument, and then runs the pen along the mock keys. Surely enough, the sounds of a piano stream forth from the pen, creating what he calls “a semi-legitimate piano.”
“The joke is that if you have a lot of money you can buy two of the pens and use them to play chopsticks,” he says before showing me that you can also play a Livescribe version of the steel drums and other instruments. If any users were to buy two, it certainly wouldn’t be the college students —at $149.99 for the one gigabyte and $199.99 for the two gigabyte, they are quite a larger investment than buying a standard pack of Bics.
For All the Geeks Out There
So it’s got bells and whistles. But how does it work?
Beneath the bird beak shaped tip of the pen is a 100 by 100 pixel camera. As a user writes (in ink that is invisible to the camera), the camera snaps 70 frames a second, tracking the movement of the pen over the tiny dots that cover the page’s surface. After creating the start-up company three years ago, CEO Jim Marggraff assembled a team of executives from Apple, IBM, Palm and more to make the innovative paper/pen concept a successful reality.
In his first week on the job, Suk, who does Quality Assurance, wandered into the hardware lab and scrounged up the pieces of a broken pen. He reassembled it, building what would become his first Livescribe pen. A year later, with a newer, evolved version before him, he begins to dissect a pen with utmost familiarity.
He’s going in to find his personal addition to the product: a piece of tape over the inside speaker that prevents it from shorting out (a previous problem the pen had). “It’s really neat to know that every pen that we make has my contribution in it,” he says. He is nimbly plucking at copper bits and removing outer layers, exposing the colorful innards of tiny wires, chips and capacitors. Finally he reaches what he is after—pausing the conversation to say, “see that little piece of tape?” A small, translucent orange piece of tape is there – a proud reminder for Suk of his role in the pen’s success.
Currently he is working on improving the firmware that runs the pen, using skills he says he learned in the Computer Engineering 121 class he took at UCSC.
“I’ve [also] been directly involved with the hardware development for the next generation pen and I don’t think that I would be anywhere near that if I didn’t have my degree from UCSC,” he says.
In a time when college graduates are being tossed into a mean and messy “real-world” economy and job market, Suk is grateful for landing a job that not only uses his college education, but involves working for a company he truly believes in. Currently, he says that the company’s biggest challenge is to inform the core market —to whom the pen would be “invaluable”— of its existence. They’ve got to see it to believe it, he says.
“You put one of these in someone’s hand and they go ‘wow, that’s amazing,’” he says. “And either they don’t have a use for it, or they have a good use for it and they say, ‘this is going to change the way I write notes.’”