Digital Ink: Leaving a Mark on Medicine

Christina T. Loguidice
Published: Wednesday, May 19, 2010
The Ancient Indians were the first to use pens around 5000 BCE. While these writing implements were primitive, typically consisting of hollowed out reeds that could hold a small amount of ink, which was generally soot in water with a plant gum binder, they were used for thousands of years and are still used today in certain parts of Pakistan. Around 500 BCE, pens started to be constructed from the wing feathers of larger birds, such as geese or swans. These pens, known as quill pens, were widely used until steel-nib pens were developed in the 1800s. Today, the most commonly used pen is the retractable ballpoint pen, the type often distributed by exhibitors at medical conventions or by local businesses. Being so widely available, and often free, pens are largely considered dispensable these days. While it is hard to imagine pens evolving much further, tech companies have envisioned pens with digital capabilities for decades. This year has been particularly exciting for the digital-pen tech sector, with many touting unique advancements yet reasonable price tags, making them more appealing to consumers. Digital pens are also finding a place in the healthcare sector, where they will no doubt increasingly leave their mark.

Examining Digital Pens

There are two types of digital pens: those that come with tablet PCs and function as an input device and the stand-alone digital pen, which has been around since the late 1990s when Anoto (www.anoto.com), a Swedish company, pioneered a paper that would allow a pen with a built-in camera to track itself. Stand-alone digital pens have come a long way since then. Let’s look at three of the available options and their features. 

Livescribe 4GB Pulse Smartpen

This October, Livescribe released the Livescribe 4GB Pulse Smartpen (this pen was included in our Holiday Buying Guide last month), which contains “Pulse,” a small computer that captures handwritten notes while simultaneously recording audio, allowing them to be linked together. The user can tap on a note with the Livescribe Smartpen and can hear the conversation play back from the exact moment the note was written. One reviewer on Amazon.com commented that “the recordings are great, even in a large room,” whereas another said “audio quality is superb in small classroom settings; however, open wide to a large lecture hall and forget it.” Notes can be uploaded to a computer for storage, allowing keyword searches to be conducted and the notes to be shared with others. Another reviewer commented, “Another cool feature is the ability to upload your notes to a special location so that they may be shared with others—I’ve already tried doing this [as a test] with someone I know who is not very technologically savvy and, again, the results were very cool!” The Livescribe 4GB Smartpen holds approximately 400 hours of recorded audio and provides enough storage for apps to be added to the pen. Livescribe launched its Applications Store in November, which features several entertainment, education, and productivity tools, ranging from free to $99.99. The pen has a 4-star rating (out of 5) on www.amazon.com and retails for $182.99.

Logitech io2 Personal Digital Pen

The Logitech io2 digital pen resembles and feels like a regular ballpoint pen; there are no keys to press and no display. The pen is activated by removing the cap and deactivated by replacing the cap. The user writes on digital paper, as on regular paper. The pen has an ink cartridge so written or drawn notes are visible; however, the pen records all strokes with its optical sensor, and once the pen is placed back in its cradle, the notes can be downloaded to a PC. The io2 can store up to 40 pages of handwritten content, with each page defined as 29 lines of handwritten text, before the user needs to dock the pen into its cradle to offload the data. The io2 comes with free software that learns the user’s handwriting, including tables, shapes, and charts, allowing them to be turned into digital text that can be edited and used in any application. The pen has a 3.5-star (out of 5) rating on Amazon. One user commented, “The reason I like this so well is that I don’t have to take my laptop to meetings, and when I get an idea, I can just write it down as I always did.” Like the Livescribe pen, the Logitech pen also requires the use of special paper, which can be pricey. The io2 retails for $129.99 at www.amazon.com.

IOGear Mobile Digital Scribe GPEN200N

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