This post is a review of how the Livescribe Pen can be useful to social scientists recording formal interviews and informal conversations in the field. Essentially, it is a pen that records what you hear and what your write – and it syncs the two together! You can upload the audio and the graphic files to your computer (Mac or Windows) or share it with email, Google Docs, Facebook, Evernote, or another mobile device. On your computer, your handwritten notes are searchable and you can click on any part of the page and the audio will “jump” to that spot of the conversation and playback the sound. And finally, they have new hardware and software to facilitate transcriptions. For more information and video tutorials, see www.livescribe.com.
The Livescribe Pen has been a huge asset in the fieldwork that I’ve done. For example, say that you are going to do a formal interview with the principal of a school. Before you begin your questioning, you “tap” the point of the pen on the “record” button that is printed on the special dot paper that it requires (read later on about the paper). The pen will then start recording what it/you “hears” and what it is/you are “writing”. As you write, if you feel that the interviewee said something really important, you can “tap” a picture of a star (and then later go back to hear/see those parts). You can also “tap” the “pause” button (e.g. when an interviewee asks you not to record their answer for a particular question) and then hit “record” again to continue the interview. When you are finished you “tap” the “stop” button.
The next part is where the fun really begins. Once you have finished recording an interview session, you can “tap” the point of the pen anywhere on the page and the pen turns into a speaker and will playback the audio that it recorded at that very point! You can tap the “jump” button on the page and it will fast forward or rewind 30 seconds in the audio recording. This is a great feature for interviews, because often times you just want to hear exactly what the interviewee said either because their wording was really interesting or you forgot what they said. With the Livescribe pen, you don’t have to scan through the whole recording to find the particular spot you want to hear. This feature makes fieldnote write-ups and transcriptions much easier (check out their transcription software too).
Next, you can attach your pen to your computer and upload the audio and graphic files to your computer (software is available for Mac and Windows). Each page of your notebook will appear on your computer as if you took a picture of it, meaning your notes are still all handwritten (not converted into typeset). And now all your handwritten notes are searchable (it even picks up my awful handwriting, which my husband is amazed by). This is a great feature to help with coding. When you search for a word, all pages containing that word will be displayed together and highlighted. On your computer, you can also click anywhere on the page with your mouse and your computer will playback the audio from that particular point. This means that you can simply and quickly hear a part of an interview whether you have your hard copy notebook in front of you. Again, you can “jump” ahead or behind in the recording by 30 seconds. You can also “speed up” the audio so that you can scan faster through a particular portion of the interview or you can “slow down” the audio to make it easier for transcription. AND As the audio progresses the color of the text you wrote changes so that you can see what you were writing literally as that person was speaking!
You can also share these files of written text and audio with anyone via email, Google Docs, Facebook, Evernote, and other mobile devices. I haven’t done this yet so I can’t vouch for it from personal experience but the video tutorial shows you how to do it and it looks really easy.
In terms of the special paper that it requires, don’t get scared off. You have to have special microdots on the page because that enables the pen’s infrared to “read” and remember what you write. You can print this special paper from your own computer OR you can purchase it from the Livescribe website or any of their third party retailers (like Best Buy). It costs the same amount as any regular notebook would cost AND it comes in multiple sizes. So you can buy the regular 8 1/2 x 11 notebook or you can buy smaller journal sizes and even pocket notebooks.
- The sound quality that it picks up is just as good as the sound quality from the attachment (Belkin) that I used to use on my iPod for interviews.
- I find it less intrusive to an interview because it just looks like an oversized pen.
- They have new transcription hardware and software to use with the pen (I haven’t tried it yet)
So I use it during formal interviews in the field, but it could also be used during informal conversations when you’re just writing regular fieldnotes. I think this could be a huge potential bonus for social scientists. For example, there are cases in my own fieldwork when I don’t understand exactly what the person is saying (mainly because the language the person is speaking in is either my second or third language). It would be great to use the Livescribe pen to just quickly tap the record button and record what they are saying so I can go back over it later. Now you could just record anytime you’re in the field for hours. For those newbies out there, although this may be tempting, I wouldn’t recommend this because it just creates too much data to store and maintain. It would also be an impossible task to transcribe it all. BUT it may be helpful so that you can go back to double check some of your notes. I say “potential”, “would be”, and “may” here, because I haven’t tried to use the Livescribe pen in this way because I don’t have IRB approval for it. In writing up my IRB application, I anticipated that it would be too hard to get IRB approval for this type of use (and rightly so as it is an everyday identity/privacy issue).
Downsides to the pen:
- It is heavier than a normal pen, so your hand can get tired after an hour or two.
- The pen itself has a certain battery life and storage capacity. This will all depend on the what version you get. But their older model that I used in the field lasts for at least 2-4 hours.
- Refurbished pens: start at $50
- 2GB new pen: $100
- 4GB new pen: $150
- 8GB new pen: $200
- 8GB echo pro pack w/transcription stuff: $250