Rows of journalists with laptops teetering on their knees and meetings in which eye contact is sacrificed for the efficiency of typing while we listen and talk are commonplace. And for good reason.
The information our lives are organized around is largely housed in machines and apps and clouds. Writing on paper is slower and less efficient: a modern two-step in which the information, if important enough, will eventually need to be typed in somewhere.
There are, of course, holdouts—those of us who persist in keeping physical datebooks, or in hand-writing lists or reminders or first drafts, nudged by some tic of the brain while guiltily knowing there’s an app for that.
But the research bears out for the pen-and-paper lovers. The physical act of writing by hand has effects unrelated to the content on the page.
“The practice of writing can enhance the brain’s intake, processing, retraining and retrieving of information,” Dr. Judy Willis, a neurologist and educator, wrote in a 2011 blog post that’s received renewed attention, as the shift from pencils to keyboards in classrooms is nationally reconsidered.
Studies involving MRI brain scans have shown regions of the brain related to thinking, language and memory light up when people are writing, in ways that aren’t replicated when they’re typing or even tracing letters.
While these studies have largely focused on how children learn, any adult who has grasped for a word and found it missing may welcome the opportunity to strengthen the “nets”—Wilson’s word—in his or her neural architecture.
Livescribe Smartpen 3
Livescribe makes zero brain-boosting health claims around its Livescribe 3 SmartPen.
What it offers is an iPhone- and iPad-compatible pen, a mobile app and special paper that enables business users and consumers to capture writing—and more—and share it with others, email it to themselves or share it with apps such as Evernote or OneNote. (Livescribe directly integrates with those two.)
The fountain-style pen has a camera beneath its tip that records each pen swipe, and the paper has very subtle dots. Every 3-square millimeters of the paper has a unique pattern that the words are connected to, enabling the software to perform searches and tell you where—in which notebook, on which page, on which line—you wrote something.
In the iOS app, a user can view his or her writing by Page or by Feed—a close-up version of the page that’s broken up into what the company calls “snippets.” Each snippet can be swiped at: Swiping in one direction offers the option of deleting the snippet, and swiping the other way converts the handwritten content to type. Snippets can be copied and pasted, tagged, turned into reminders or edited.
The option to edit (or correct, really) is an important one, since the transition from handwriting-to-type was, in my experience, rarely perfect—not because the software isn’t very good, but because I have terrible handwriting that gets worse when I’m writing quickly to keep up with someone’s speech.
Livescribe Smartpen 3 Might Upend Your Workstyle in the Best Way
One or several snippets can also be selected and shared, or a whole page or notebook can be emailed, as a PDF file. Among the benefits of being able to turn handwritten text into type is that it’s then possible to search in the PDF, and cut and paste from it.
The Pages and Feeds on the iOS device can be searched whether they’re in type form or handwritten. Within the app, there’s a search function that can pull up each instance where the searched-for word appeared; if it can understand your writing, that is. (According to a National Math and Science Initiative study, 33 percent of people have trouble reading their own handwriting.)
While it’s possible to tag snippets, these “tags” are more like highlighting content since it’s not possible to assign a word or phrase to a tag. Brian Kemp, the company’s PR manager, told me that they considered making the tags user-nameable but it proved “a little confusing” in testing.
I addressed this, though, by basically tagging on the page. If I had an idea for this review, for example, I’d write “pen,” and circle it, and then write what I had to say. Later, by searching “pen,” I could see at a glance all the instances where I’d created a note about the review.
If you draw on the pages, the drawing shows up—it’s easy to imagine an architect or designer sketching something and then emailing it to herself or to others for consideration or filing.
In the app, you can also pull in images or graphs from elsewhere on the device, to make a note more complete, and export a written phone number into contacts—or tap on it to call or message it.
Little tags on the bottom of the paper also make it easy to record while you’re writing, as long as an iPhone or iPad is present.
During a recent interview, I set my iPhone on the notebook while I wrote. (I’ve been doing this too long to ever just trust a recording.) I tapped Record on the notebook to start and End when I was finished.
Later, the snippets I wrote while the phone was recording were green. Had I not been writing, the recording would still exist, but because I was also writing, I can tap on any word in my notes and the recording will start from that point. I love this feature.
The iPhone or iPad doesn’t need to be present in order for the pen to work, but the pen does need to be turned on (at which point an LED light turns green) for writing to be recorded. When you do pair the pen with the iPad or iPhone, the light turns Blue, and the app automatically syncs, updating the app with everything you wrote since you last paired the devices.
It’s also possible to program the app so that content is automatically synced to Evernote or OneNote, as a backup measure.
Does It Really Work?
The Livescribe 3 is everything it promises to be. But there was still a weakness—me.
My poor handwriting, particularly when rushing, prevented me from being able to fully use the solution as I would have liked to. Ideally, I could take notes, turn them into text, email it to myself and then use the text to begin writing from.
But there was so much to correct regarding the to-type transition. (Even when it understood my handwriting, it was confused by bullets, or would turn a parenthesis into an uppercase C, for example.) So I wound up almost always leaving my notes in handwritten form. Still, it was helpful to have even handwritten notes up on a computer screen—especially a computer in a place where the notebook wasn’t.
I also loved being able to think about something and write it down, but then also send those ideas to Evernote, where they can live, properly tagged, instead of getting lost in notebook pages I never bother flipping back to.
Basically, Livescribe solves the problem of notebooks being basically dead content that few people ever wind up interacting with again once the writing is done. Livescribe is just not completely perfect.
But that’s fine with me. I suspect Livescribe will keep improving its software, and I plan to start improving my penmanship. My brain, and my ego, are invested in it.