Livescribe/Anoto Dot Positioning System Closeup (color) (featured crop)

Smart Pens & Smart Paper

Why Pen and Paper?

I love to write, jot down notes, and scribble. I find physically writing to be a very rewarding experience.

With the presence of tablets with styluses having become very commonplace, one wonders why anyone would continue to use things like pen and paper. There are reasons. Mine as as follows:

  • Writing with a pen on physical paper is very different than writing with a stylus on a glass surface.
  • No matter how powerful the computer behind the screen, there will always be a delay between movement and the screen updating. Mose so with bad tech or bluetooth/BLE based tech. And much more so, if there are additional functions associated with the pen stroke, like in artistic programs Photoshop, Affinity Photo, Clip Studio Paint, etc.
  • Contact between pen tip and the surface does not register exactly as one expects.
  • Parallax error continues to plague tablet/stylus devices, even in 2021.
  • A tablet is a view port or portal to a virtual piece of paper. The screen itself is not the paper.

During the course of trying to find a solution to the problem I will describe below, I’ve chatted with my wife about the need for a smart pen and smart paper solution in the age of powerful tablets with fairly responsive user interaction and interface response loops. You can do much more with a stylus and a tablet than you can with pen and paper. That is truly an absolute.

So, it comes down to aesthetics, preferences, and needs.

Aesthetics, Preferences, and Needs

I will only speak to my own reasons why I use a device like the Livescribe/Anoto Symphony Smart Pen. I enjoy writing. I enjoy writing with a keyboard and I enjoy writing with a pen. I tend to not enjoy writing with a pencil.

Why Would I _Prefer_ Writing With Pen on Paper?

Well, there is a sense of immediacy. When I write with a pen on paper, I am transferring ink from the pen to the surface of the paper. Either through the rolling of a ball, flowing of dyes through a felt tip, or coursing between the split line of a fountain pen. When you touch pen tip to paper, a mark is made. Instantly.

Moleskine Classic Notebook, Scarlet Red, 192 Pages

And I find that I prefer this kind of immediacy. This physical work that is going on. The tiny amount of consumable ink soaking into the paper. What I wrote there is a singular and unique instance of something I was thinking about and wanted committed down onto paper. Did I write it down with a flourish? Did I use excessive force? Was I feeling giddy or furious? I’ve looked upon my writings from years ago, and I can see the impressions of the ink or graphite onto paper. The indentations and the pooling of ink from when I was dwelling on what to write next. There are various “analog” data points being recorded, which the typed form of the same text, does not convey, because it is not something that is recorded.

Discovering A Need That Digital Did Not Satisfy

When digital styli first became generally available, I was head-over-heels. Drawing and writing without needing to constantly replace pens, run out of paper, smudges, clean removal of mistakes, unlimited undo, etc.

Digital satisfied many _needs_ which arose. And the use of digital applications in conjunction with digital styli filled many needs.

However, I always found myself unhappy and trying to find yet another one. I thought it might have been ergonomics. that factored in, but comfort of the writing implement did not fill the need. I thought it was the levels of sensitivity, the tilt detection, pen rotation, eraser at the other end of the stylus. Nope. Those were additional features and comforts, but did not address what I needed.

I realized I had no idea what it was that digital styli failed to provide me!

Discovering The Aesthetics of Pen and Paper

Wordsworth & Black Majesti Fountain Pen For Journaling, Calligraphy, and Smooth Writing [Checked Chrome]

Then I came upon *cough* was introduced to the idea of journaling. The new-again task of writing things down from a pen or pencil, onto pages within a paper journal. Nothing electronic. Just a pen, paper, and a convenient form to hold them all together.

It was a system than countless people swear by. It was a system that the digital watches, phones, tablets, and computers basically did many orders of magnitude better. Yet people use them.

I was bit by the bug and so indulged myself. I bought special journals with special paper. Paper that extolled the virtues of a smooth, crisp ink interfacing, and no bleed through. I bought pens and fountain pens that ranged from feeling like I was scratching the surface of the paper to riding on the surface made slick with so much oil. The options were many.

I ended up filling literally dozens of journals. And this made me realize that I enjoyed _writing_ with a pen on paper. However, I did NOT enjoy writing with a smooth stylus on a smooth glass surface, with lag, resolution limits, orientation limits, power restrictions, weight, etc. When you want to just write, jot down a string of thoughts, or doodle…. a pen and paper is extremely enjoyable. At least, for me.

Something Of Both Worlds

Either when I was journaling or typing, I found myself for want of a happy medium. Something that would let me get the tactile immediacy and enjoyment of writing with a pen as well as the digital copy, which could potentially be converted from writing to text.

I had given different solutions a go with varying levels of success.

Wacom Solutions

From Wacom, I tried the Wacom Inkling and other variants involving a clip you clip onto a board. They more or less employed either sound or IR to help the pen and the clip determine where the pen was relatively speaking.

Wacom Inkling Digital Sketch Pen (MDP123)

There were issues with this method:

  • Alignment can become lost.
  • Resolution differed depending on the distance the pen was from the base clip.
  • Ambient light caused problems.
  • Needed a battery for both the clip and the pen.

I could live with impacted battery life. However, I could not live with something that can easily lose alignment, with NO WAY to recover or re-establish alignment.

They later released the Wacom tablets with clips for paper and a pen nib for the Wacom pro pens.

Replacement For Wacom Inkling Pen Battery

I love Wacom’s digitizing tablets. However, I really didn’t care for their smart pen offerings.

I also did not care for their use of pretty hard to find batteries.


Wacom Sketchpad Pro Graphic Pen Drawing Tablets

Wacom also offered an improvement over this with their Inkspace “Smart Board” setup. Basically, a pad of paper in a constrained holder to remove/reduce the shifting and alignment issues that the clip had. And instead of IR or ultrasonic, it made use of their reliable and time tested EM field technique used in their graphical tablets. This meant that the smart board needed a small processor to log the pen strokes.

The benefit to this approach is that you can use any kind of paper you want, so long as it does not hinder the sensing of the pen. Though I do wonder about varying accuracy due to height changing over time… still, a good solution.

However, by then, I had already moved onto another company’s products.

Livescribe / Anoto “Smart Pens”

Livescribe Symphony Smartpen

So we finally get to Livescribe / Anoto smart pens. Livescribe has had a variety of products out for students, researchers, and note takers with their Echo pens. A pen that can digitally record the physical notes you are taking as well as record audio. The pen could also reply sections with the repeat aspect geared towards transcribers.

Livescribe’s approach was to put the positioning information onto the paper itself in the form of near-invisible watermark dots. The dots encoded an absolute position within the Livescribe/Anoto address space. This address space represented all of the current and future products. Each sheet representing a small surface area of that massive virtual space.

Livescribe 8.5 x 11 Single Subject Notebook 1-4 (4-pack)

The smart pen has an IR camera as well as pen pressure sensor, to gather the point info and pen tip contact info, to create a stream of data which a mobile phone/tablet or a computer can convert into pages of written text. There is also the option to do handwriting to text conversion.

This system did not suffer from loss of alignment as the pen re-established its position from the dots. All the dots have to do is be responsive to infrared light while the rest of the paper and other ink sources were not. This also allowed Livescribe/Anoto to create paper with control interfaces.

Since the pen recorded your writing, the digital response loop was taken out of the equation. You only ever see your physical drawing until you sync with your desktop or mobile device. Though, once synced, you can actually watch the stream of strokes come from the pen to the device. There is definitely lag there, but because you have the immediacy of the ink on paper, the non-realtime conversion of dot points to movement patterns was not a problem for the end user.

Livescribe Smart Journal, Lined A5 Sized, 2 Pack (Gray & Black)

The pen’s sole job is to capture the images of the dots at 70+ fps, convert that information as well as the relative displacement of the pattern in the pen’s camera view, to a stream of pen data, and save that to the pen’s internal storage.

The next time the pen syncs with a computer, phone, tablet, etc. it will transfer this pen data to the Livescribe+ app and based on the stream of dot point data, recreate the path of the pen while it was depressed!

This means that the Livescribe smart pen itself has a great battery life!

For Next Time…

I love the pen, I love their notebooks. However, finding them is not always easy. Livescribe offers PDF(s) for download that one can print, but that requires a laser printer and specific settings. I only have an Epson inkjet printer at home. The next post will cover my experience trying to print the sheets at a local office supply and services establishment.

I will also talk a bit about the ink cartridges used to refill the Livescribe 3, Aegir, and Symphony smart pens.

About Post Author

Author: Wing Wong
Husband, Father, and all around technology tinkerer. :)