August 13, 2018, by Timothy Hill

Research Tool Review: Learning to Loathe the Livescribe Echo – and Why You Might Love It

My difficulties with the Livescribe Echo begin before I’ve even started writing: what, I find myself wondering, am I supposed to do with the cap?

Full disclosure: I have repeatedly demonstrated the Echo to staff across the University of Nottingham, and urged them to give it a try. And yet somehow, the problem of the cap has never struck me before.

I was, I suppose, too hung up on the Echo’s functionality to notice. For qualitative researchers, the Livescribe Echo ought to be amazing: a pen that is more than a pen, with an inbuilt microphone and 2GB of memory allowing you to record up to 200 hours of audio before dumping it down to your laptop. If you use it with its associated microdot notebook, it will also digitise your handwriting and attempt to convert it into text – meaning that, with a bare minimum of effort, you end up with a searchable, shareable digital archive of your notes aligning written and audio representations of the same event, accessible anywhere you can get internet access. And I’ve played with and demonstrated the Echo enough to know that by-and-large it actually does function as designed. The notebook-based interface for controlling recording and playback is simple and intuitive and Just Works. The digital handwriting representation is high-resolution and beautiful.

And yet … the cap. However impressive the Echo’s digital functionality is (and it really is very impressive), this is the first time I’ve tried to eat my own dog food and use it under actual working conditions. And I’m not impressed. My test setting is the NHS Hack Days I wrote about a couple of weeks ago, hoping the Echo will help me get to grips with the complex world of NHS IT – and right now I’m stymied by what must be one of the most thoroughly-solved technological problems in pen design. Generations of pen-makers, behind everything from the 39p classic Bic Cristal to Mont Blanc Meisterstücks, have accepted the unexciting-but-thoroughly-practical solution of designing the cap to be popped on the end of the pen while you write. But the Echo is sufficiently futuristic that it eschews this simple solution in favour of a detachable, irregular plastic polygon which, I eventually decide, can live comfortably and retrievably only in my breast pocket. What anyone not wearing conventional male business attire does with it I don’t know.

No sooner have I solved the cap conundrum than I run into another, rather more serious, issue with the Echo: the sheer awkwardness of recording people. It’s fine when I’m just an audience member in the lecture hall, listening to the pitches from the various would-be lead hackers. But once I’m trying to talk to them one-on-one, asking them why they’ve chosen this particular project to work on and how it’s going, I’ve essentially got three choices. I can:

  1. Try to record them covertly. I’m not sure whether this falls more toward the ‘rude’ or the ‘unethical’ end of the spectrum, but either way it’s a bad idea, and at any rate it’s something the continually-counting LED readout on the Echo makes impossible anyway.
  2. Ask them if it’s okay for me to record them, immediately turning an informal chat into a formal interview and possibly putting them on the defensive.
  3. Just turn the damn thing off.

It’s immediately clear that the right answer is 3 – meaning that I’ve now lost a big part of the advantage of the Echo and am essentially writing with a large and somewhat ungainly digital pen. The writing experience certainly isn’t bad – the Echo is well-balanced, and the nib skates pretty nicely over the microdot paper – but it’s not great either, and the A5 format of the microdot notebook makes me feel frenetic, constantly flipping pages while my interlocutor is talking. After I’ve rapidly filled five pages with my large and scratchy handwriting, I ditch the Echo in favour of a smaller pen and bigger paper.

The Echo is back, though, for the closing presentations on the second day, when the assembled hackers proudly display the results of their labours. I’m an audience member once again, and this is the last chance I’ll have to pick up information about what people have been doing and how they’ve been faring. It feels important not to miss anything – and the steadily scrolling LEDs on the Echo as it records are a reassuring sign that I won’t.

Back at the hotel, though, I’m in for a disappointment. The problem isn’t the recording. That’s pretty good – the audio clear and intelligible, the microphone far more tolerant of handling noise and misdirection than I would have thought. There is a slight issue that my style of note-taking – hopping backward and forward, annotating earlier notes with acronym expansions or tiny social-network diagrams – plays havoc with the Echo software’s expectation of strict linearity. But that’s not really the important thing, which is simply that I never needed to record anything on the audio at all. As it turns out, I’m a much better listener than I thought – my points terse and concise, capturing all the important details and skipping all the trivial ones. In fact, the audio recording is little more than an irritation – a slow and cumbrous way to reconstruct the points illustrated quickly and succinctly in my notes.

I’m just about to start patting myself on the back about this, though, when I realise just why it was my note-taking was so good at capturing what was said; why, in fact, it would have been surprising if it hadn’t been. It’s because I was only ever using the Echo’s recording capacity when I was, precisely, an audience member at a lecture: that is to say, when I was listening to people who were trying to be as clear as possible at all times, and who had – whether as university lecturers or as doctors – considerable experience in speaking to people about their areas of expertise in easily graspable terms. In essence, they had all had the training and made the effort to deliver their pitches in a way that was simple to store in one’s head and jot down on paper. And then I had, indeed, stored them in my head and jotted them down on paper as intended. If I’d been in a situation where people hadn’t seen it as their job to make sure I understood everything – if I were a journalist, lawyer, social worker, or ethnologist, for example – the Echo would have been invaluable. I could have double-checked my memory. Made sure I didn’t miss anything. Parsed and reparsed what people were saying for opacities or inconsistencies. As it was, it was merely redundant.

In fact, it wasn’t until a couple of weeks later – when I was writing the NHS Hack Days blog post – that I discovered my own use-case for the Echo; because of course I was trying to write the post at work, and I’d left the legal pad I’d made all my one-to-one notes in at home. That’s when it would have been handy to have an electronic, cloud-stored version of the notebook. Even then, though, I think my preferred route would have been Microsoft Office Lens, or possibly a born-digital solution, rather than the Echo.

It was only a few days after that, though, that the Livescribe Echo, unbeknownst to me, passed its final road-test with me. Because of course, the moment I popped the Echo pen cap in my breast pocket, I did what I should have been able to do with it all along: I forgot all about it. Meaning that I now know that the Echo cap can survive, with ease, a 90-minute wash cycle at 60 degrees C with non-bio detergent.

Of course, it probably shouldn’t have to. But it’s not something I’d try with a Meisterstück.

If you’re interested in experimenting with the Livescribe Echo or other digital pen or notebook technologies to see how they can help you in your research, email to discuss the range of options available and arrange a long-term loan.




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