Could Livescribe’s New Smartpen Send Tweets Via Paper?

Today, Livescribe unveiled the third generation of its popular smartpen, which features some promising applications that could bring messy handwriting into the digital age.

Smartphones and tablets might be more popular than ever, but according to Livescribe CEO Gilles Bouchard, so too is paper. “Roughly 60% of mobile users still say they prefer to take notes on paper–and that number has actually gone up in the last few years,” Bouchard says. “Paper is still very relevant.”


Today, with that data as a foundation, Livescribe unveiled the third generation of its promising smartpen. As with previous iterations, the Livescribe 3 automatically records notes taken by pen and paper, and digitally transcribes them for storage and sharing in the cloud. What’s new is the form factor itself, a thinner, lighter, and more appealing device that will make Livescribe’s product more mainstream, with help from a companion app that syncs handwritten notes seamlessly with the iPhone and iPad–and that could create offline applications for Twitter and Facebook.

Before, Livescribe’s pen was a bulky, stand-alone device. It was fat due to the excessive technology inside: a recording device and microphone, as well as a small screen display. “It was pretty techie–you almost had to learn a new operating system to use it,” Bouchard says. But now, by syncing with your iPhone or iPad via Bluetooth, Livescribe 3 off-loads much of that bulk to your mobile device and makes it do the work. Take notes on Livescribe’s compatible notebooks, and your handwriting will instantly convert into text on your iPhone; if you want to record audio, your smartphone will handle that task instead of Livescribe.

The pen itself is slicker than before–the company finally turned to an award-winning pen designer for help, and it shows. The Livescribe 3 no longer looks like it’s from Star Trek. It’s something you wouldn’t mind using at meetings or in the classroom.

But the most compelling aspect of Livescribe 3 are the ways it makes antiquated, often illegible chicken scratch useful in the digital world. The company’s app, Livescribe+, doesn’t only capture your notes, it deciphers them for use in other applications on your mobile device. Imagine you wrote down, say, a phone number or address in your notebook. When Livescribe+ records the writing on your phone, it’s capable of reading the handwriting as computer text and allowing you to easily add numbers to your contacts or to look up street addresses in Google Maps. The text is searchable and also shareable, via Dropbox and Evernote.

Still, at $150, the smartpen is expensive, and it’s still tied exclusively to Livescribe’s special paper products, which include starter notebooks, flip notepads, and sticky notes, as well as higher-end, leather-bound journals. Forget the Livescribe pad and you’re out of luck. Bouchard is aware of the issue and says making the technology work without its compatible paper “is something we’ve always thought about, but we don’t think it’s around the corner. It’s a long-term goal.”


In the meantime, there are some promising applications that Livescribe could facilitate using its paper products. In the upper-right hand corner of its pads, Livescribe has included three programmable buttons. Click one of them with the Livescribe pen and it’ll automatically perform whatever task you’ve programmed it to do digitally. For example, a user might set a button to flag a piece of writing: When you open the Livescribe+ app on your iPhone, it’ll give you a reminder about what corresponding text you starred.

But imagine if you could set the buttons to send out a text message or tweet or update a status on Facebook, right from a physical notepad? Simply write down a short note on Livescribe’s paper, click the corresponding button, and it could be synced to the iPhone in your pocket via Bluetooh, converted into text in Livescribe+, and sent to Twitter or Facebook or a friend via SMS–without ever having to open your mobile device.

Bouchard says the technology could be coming to Livescribe+ down the road. “It’s one of those potential features–over time, we could make those buttons fully programmable by the user,” he says. “It’s one of those things we’ve thought about.”

Sending tweets and texts by paper? How will teachers ever keep up in the classroom?

About the author

Austin Carr writes about design and technology for Fast Company magazine.