Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Serious Happiness, Serious Toy

Last January I attended a conference on Positive Psychology at Claremont Graduate University that confirms my belief that the best conferences to attend are ones outside your field. I had heard that one of my heroes, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, would be speaking (the author of "Flow: the Psychology of Optimal Experience" and one of the authors of "Experience Sampling Method: Measuring the Quality of Everyday Life", which reveals him to be one of the granddaddies of what we call beeper studies), and I wanted to hear him. He was scheduled for the end of the day-long seminar, and I toyed with the idea of coming late just to hear him. I am so glad that I didn't.

The entire conference was a revelation. The field of Positive Psychology is a young one but they are getting busy with the act of measuring happiness, developing a Manual of the Sanities (the opposite of the DSM, or the "manual of the insanities," as they call it), and otherwise treating dysfunction, whether individual or organizational, by focusing on what one is doing right, rather than what one is doing wrong. Being firmly rooted in academia (and most likely attacked from all sides by traditional—i.e. dysfunction-focused—psychologists), they are building an impressive body of work that proves that thesis. You can find video of the entire conference on their web site, plus a good overview of the field in this Time Magazine article.

I took the opportunity to try out my new Pulse Smartpen, a product I'd bought with the hope that it would aid me in taking notes during research interviews. 

What an amazing product. Usually these things are vaporware; this is the first product I've seen of this type that performs as advertised, with very few glitches. The pen works with paper printed in a proprietary dot pattern licensed from the Anoto Group. The dots are in a random pattern, and each area of the pattern is unique. 

Evidently, they have generated an immense area of this pattern—something like an area equivalent to the size of Europe and Russia—and have printed it out on the pages of a set of notebooks that you use with the pen. If you can imagine chopping the pattern up into page-sized pieces and printing it in notebooks, each page of which is unique, you'll get the idea of the basis of the technology.

The pen has an IR camera embedded in the tip that "sees" the dot pattern. The pen knows, then, where it is on any page of any of the eight notebooks. And just when you think, aha!, here's where they're making their money—you're hooked into buying their notebooks—it's true that you are, but the notebooks (standard spiral notebooks or 5.5 x 8.5 Moleskine-type books) cost about what the ordinary versions cost. Not a big deal.

So the pen does not actually record the image of the pen stroke; it records the location the pen is on the paper when the pressure sensor indicates that you are pressing down, i.e. writing. It's a pretty fool-proof system that records what you write by hand and stores it in the flash memory in the pen.

You dock the pen to your computer to download the files to a companion piece of software, the Livescribe Desktop, where you can view your notes.

"Cool," you say. But wait. There's more. The pen has a microphone on it that can record audio of what's going on when you write. And it links it to what you write. So. In your notebook, on the analogue version of your notes, you can tap the pen on any part of those notes and the pen will replay the audio that was recorded. It does this on a crappy little speaker on the pen, but on the computer, when you click on the visual image of the notes with your cursor, the playback audio reveals that the mic on the pen is surprisingly good for the size of the pen, and if the speakers on your computer are good (or you're listening through a headset), you will hear surprisingly good-quality audio.

But wait. There's more. The pen comes with a headset that plugs into a mini-jack at the top end. Each earbud on the headset not only contains a speaker but also contains its own microphone. When you wear the headset while taking notes, the pen will record binaural, stereo audio. The playback, if you listen through the headset or through any headset connected to your computer, will give you a "you are there" experience of the event. This is seriously cool. Knowing just enough about brain science to make me dangerous, I can imagine that a learning-disabled child, taking notes with the pen and headset in school, can replay the notes later and hearing the stereo recording will enable him to better recall the experience of the teacher's lecture, hence enabling better incorporation of the knowledge. Just a theory, but I'm sticking to it. At the very least, the high-quality binaural audio puts me back into the conference in an immersive way, which I know helps my recall of the event.

They call these recordings linked to notes "paper replay" sessions, and there is a community web site where one can upload paper replay sessions for others to access online. I haven't experimented with this part of the system until now (I've only looked around at some of the recorded sessions that others have uploaded there). They just added the ability to embed sessions into blogs, so I'm trying it out. Here goes.

This is a 7-minute session of Martin Seligman's introductory remarks at the Claremont Positive Psychology conference. I recorded this with the headset, and if you listen to it with headphones, you'll see the quality of the binaural audio. Pretty darned cool.

Oh. By the way. Click with your cursor anywhere on the greyed-out notes and you'll skip instantly to that part of the recording. This is immensely helpful for reviewing longer talks, like this one:

This one is a longer recording, but an interesting one. I recorded it at Art Center College of Design's 2009 Summit, a small conference we hold each February on the topic of sustainability. This talk is an example of why I like this little conference—it attracts a wide variety of presenters on a number of interesting topics, in this case Col. Jodine Tooke, who is talking about how the US Air Force is keeping us safe from Cyberterrorism. Pretty darn cool as well.

And speaking of the length of the recording, you can see how, by clicking anywhere on the image of the notes you can skip to that part of the talk. This makes listening to a longer talk much easier—you can navigate around within it in an intelligent way (as long as the notes I've taken are intelligible to you, which they may or may not be... sorry). This is a marked improvement on merely listening to an audio file, where your only option is to scroll forward or backward, without knowing where you are "landing."

This second recording is an example of what is captured without using the headset—just recording with the mic in the pen. Not bad at all, although you'll note that it's a monaural recording.

In sum, I'm very happy with the pen. In the past, I've recorded using a Belkin mic attached to my iPod, making note of the time signature in my notebook whenever the speaker says anything interesting, so that I'd be able to cut straight to that part of the recording later. With this pen, the linking of written notes to recorded audio is automatic.

The only glitch that I've found is that not all of my pen strokes are captured, which you can see in the first example, above. I was writing more slowly in the second example, and so (while my handwriting is atrocious, sorry) you can see the complete words.

My friends who are designers are not happy that the pen strokes are recorded as lines of consistent width. They would like the dynamic quality (thick, thin) of the line to be captured. To them, I say, This is not a Wacom tablet. Get over it. It would, however, be an easy way to record simple sketches (the files can be saved three ways: as linked Paper Replay sessions, as JPEG files, and as AIFF sound files) and get them into a layer in Illustrator or Photoshop to use as an underlay. You can buy unlined Moleskine-type notebooks with the dot pattern only, which would make this easy.

All in all I'm pretty happy with the pen, and it's made accessing my notes much easier than before. I used to attend conferences and take copious notes that I'd rarely look at later. I find that I'm accessing what I've written much more often now.

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