Pulse smart pen from LivescribeIn an earlier post I presented 4 gift ideas for the geek in your life. I picked them not just because they’re cool, but also because they each represent an example of innovation at its finest. I’ll take a post for each to explain why.

On my list is the series of smart pens by Livescribe. I’ve been working with the first-gen Pulse pen for over a year now. It has utterly transformed the way I take notes and transcribe interviews. Its genius is in the way it records ambient sounds and then indexes them with any notes you take on special paper.

Other smart pens have attempted similar functions, but this is the killer app because the special paper is cheap, requires no special setup or fussing with, and the system works flawlessly. I use it mostly for taking notes during interviews (later I just tap interesting quotes in my notes for instant playback on the pen). But you can also use it to create “pencasts,” little movies that show notes and drawings forming in time with recorded narration. You can see one in action as part of my Popular Mechanics feature on SpaceX.

I had a chance to talk with Livescribe CEO and inventor Jim Marggraff about his vision for this technology. He also did the earlier LeapFrog toys (my kids use the LeapFrog Tag pen to have books read to them), and Livescribe is part of a continuum building toward a broader vision. Essentially, Marggraff is engaged in nothing less than the creation of an entirely new communications medium. “Paper-based multimedia” is the term Marggraff used in describing this new medium early on to his business partners.

How does it differ from the media we’re more familiar with? “As a culture we’re accustomed to active visual media, not passive visual,” Marggraff told me. “Things happen when you put something in front of somebody—a still—as in a book or a page. It’s very different. It turns out if you’re looking at something static and you touch it or click on it and audio begins to play, you will remain engaged with that static image for about seven seconds. If the audio just begins talking and it doesn’t reground your eyes in that image, you disconnect. So I had to really guide people on how to script audio for static art.” The trick is to continually redirect users to look at elements on the page being described in the audio, or direct them to click different parts of the images or text.

Marggraff and Livescribe’s mission is to “capture, access, and share information.” Ultimately Marggraff hopes to create the technologies to enable us to digitally record all of our experiences, not just isolated conversations, for instant retrieval and sharing at any time. For now, Livescribe is looking ahead to iPhone and iPad access to pencasts, automatic transcription and other services, virtual notebooks on your computer desktop, and more. “The beauty is there’s demand for all of these,” Marggraff told me, “and the interest and the growth in sales for the pen are quite explosive.” As a user, I can understand why.

With Marggraff’s vision and Livescribe’s sharp mission focus, I think it’s quite possible that these pens will soon become as indispensable as our phones and laptops.