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How virtual reality can be used to train fire service personnel

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When Facebook announced earlier this year its plans to buy Oculus VR, developers of gaming headset the Oculus Rift, many gaming companies announced that they would not develop games for use with the Oculus in the future.

However, as a virtual reality headset, the Oculus Rift has shown the ability for use in other industries too, and that's where G2G3 come in.

Immersive simulation designer G2G3 has developed a 3D emergency services simulation, initially for use by the Fire Service College, which can be used with the Oculus to train fire fighters to face virtual reality emergencies before they enter the field.

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Representatives from G2G3 commented that since the number of emergencies has dropped over the years there has been less opportunity to train individuals in real-life situations.

Although the lack of emergencies is a huge positive, it is important for junior fire fighters to be aware of how they would react in an emergency situation.

The Oculus allows these trainees to be immersed in several different emergency scenarios to enable them to learn how to cope during a response operation and determine whether or not they would be capable of making the correct decisions under pressure.

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The system allows the trainee to watch, move around in and assess the situation through the Oculus headset and tell their instructor what they think the next action should be. The instructor can then manipulate the environment remotely and also monitor the trainee's performance.

I was able to test the environment at the recent IT Support Show in Earl's Court, and it does feel very real. The display shows smoke and the people around you, and the environment includes realistic backdrops including broken windows and damaged vehicles.

I've even been told that the simulation displays different coloured and textured smoke depending on the type of fire simulation that has been selected to display.

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You can look around you with 360 degree vision in the headset, but use an external controller in order to turn and move your 'body'.

It really immerses you into the surroundings, and you sometimes forget that there are other people around you outside of the headset - exactly the reaction that is needed in order to place your mind-set in the seriousness of an emergency situation.

Unfortunately during testing I did experience slight motion sickness, which is apparently not uncommon when first using the headset as your vision does not always face the same direction as your body.

The simulation currently assesses Fire Services Incident Commanders to level 1 accreditation, and includes 14 different types of scenario representative of real-life situations that emergency personnel could find themselves in.

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G2G3 has plans to develop the platform in the future in order to encompass assessment for higher levels of accreditation in order to further help to develop the education of the emergency services.

With technologies such as the Oculus steadily growing, G2G3 has even speculated that there may be the opportunity to add other features in the future to increase realism and really prepare for these life-or-death situations, including the ability to physically walk around a simulation, record heart rate and stress level or even the injection of smell into the simulation. As the technology for virtual reality continues to progress, it is becoming clear that these technologies can be used for all manner of things, from gaming to training and beyond.

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Gadget Show Live 2014: 3D printing

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Ever since last year, the 3D printing sensation has been steadily growing, with Gartner predicting that 3D printer sales will double by 2015.

This year 3D printing is still a prominent trend, except now the printers are smaller and cheaper, making them more easily accessible to businesses or even home users.

They can be used for a number of different things, from creating parts for use in product production, to rapid prototyping, to just making something fun. The government has even invested in research into 3D printing, after claiming that the technology could drive growth in education and manufacturing in the future. 

The Gadget Show Live was packed with stands displaying the latest 3D printers, and I happened to stop at one to take note of the technology currently being used in the 3D printing industry.

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RoboSavvy, a firm that specialises in providing robotics and DIY products, had a range of 3D printers on display, all of which were under £2500.

Among these was the MakerBot Replicator, a desktop 3D printer allowing the user to make 3D models from digital blueprints. The technology for this has been around for a while, but this particular printer also has an on board camera so you can see the progress of your model while it is printing.

It also has a 100 micron resolution to create the smoothest models possible that shouldn't need sanding after printing, and is available for around £2340.

To take the printing process full circle, the MakerBot Digitizer was also on display. This gadget allows you to scan in an already existing object to create a digital model - effectively 3D printing in reverse. 

This can then be used with a 3D printer to print out a replica of the original product. If you really wanted to, you could then scan the model in order to make another digital replica to be printed out again.

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Although 3D printing has been around for a while, with every model the printers get more and more advanced. And let's face it; even though they will soon become the norm, they're still really cool. 

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Gadget show live 2014: SunnyCam video recording eyewear

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The wearable technology trend that is sweeping the world has so far mainly been about health monitors and fitness bands to track your activities.

 

But the SunnyCam is more towards the Google Glass end of the spectrum, and features a pair of cool sunnies with an embedded camera between the lenses to record your life as you're living it.


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As well as having a camera built into the frame, each pair of glasses also has a port for a Micro SD card to record on to so videos can be uploaded straight from the device after filming.

 

The glasses are capable of recording HD 1280 x 720 AVIs or taking regular JPGs through a mount free camera situated between interchangeable lenses.

 

Although this device does not use the lenses themselves to relay information to the user as Google Glass would, these glasses are still a step up from other similar gadgets on the market such as a GoPro camera, as you don't have a tiny camera sticking out of your helmet.


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The pair that was on display at the Gadget Show had quite chunky arms, presumably to incorporate the touch controls, Micro SD card and rechargeable battery that fit into the frame.

 

This did make the glasses slightly uncomfortable, but I was told that a new slimmer version of the specs will be released this year.


They're available on the net for around £89.99, and there are lots of cool accessories you can get for them too such as new lenses, glasses cleaners and screen cleaners. 

 


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REVIEW: G-Drive USB mass storage device

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Portable mass storage is becoming the norm these days, whether for transporting data or just for a backup you can hide somewhere safe.  

The G-Drive from G Technology is designed to provide a highly portable storage solution that will allow the average person to save and transport large amounts of data without having to invest in a permanent storage unit. 

The G-Drive is light, feels durable and has a light silver aluminium exterior with plastic edging. It's easy to carry around in your bag, and is only slightly bigger than a smartphone, measuring 129 x 82 x 13 mm. 

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With a capacity of 1TB of data, you could back up the contents of your whole Mac or PC and rest assured that there will still be space to add bigger files from elsewhere without running out of space. 

Specs at a glace: 
G-Drive USB mass storage device 
Capacity: 1TB
Speed: 5400RPM
Compatible with: Mac OS 10.6 +; Windows 8, 7 and Vista
Price: Approximately £108

Unfortunately, setting up the G-Drive was not as easy as it seemed. When the box arrived claiming to be a portable USB drive for Apple Laptops, it raised a bit of concern. I'm not a Mac owner, and all of the documentation I had seen had claimed that it would be compatible with a Windows PC and operating system. 

I decided there was only one way to find out, and plugged in. Unfortunately nothing happened and I had to find a friend with a Mac to format the drive for my machine before I could use it.  

Once it was up and running though, it worked perfectly. The super-fast USB 3.0 connection makes uploading files so easy that a huge amount of files can be transferred in the blink of an eye.  

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The drive is USB/FireWire powered, so it does not require any external power sources, making it easily portable. It can also be used in conjunction with  Mac Time Machine - the built-in back up feature for OS X. 

When it comes to backing up important files and data, no one wants to skimp on quality. This drive is fast, durable and has a large storage capacity. What more do you need?

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MWC REVIEW: Tech21 Impact Band

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I picked this nifty gadget up during Showstoppers at the MWC conference in Barcelona. This phone case/band uses a substance called D30 to reduce impact to your phone when you drop it. 

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The band of D30 implanted around the case disperses the force of the impact so that the rest of your band feels the force as opposed to your phone. This video shows a demonstration of the D30 material:

The case did feel a little loose on my phone, but not loose enough that it would slip or fall off. As well as the band, the case comes with a plastic back cover to protect the other side of your phone, but this part doesn't seem necessary. When you're constantly travelling or multitasking, making sure you invest in a good case for those breath-stopping moments when your phone slips from your hand is vitally important.

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I did take the plunge and drop the phone with the case on, and the device survived intact with no damage, so it seems that Tech21 is on to a winner. The official price for this is around £18, but can be found elsewhere online for less, and as well as providing protection for your phone, it also looks pretty funky and comes in a range of colours. 

MWC FIRST LOOK: Sony Xperia Z2 and Sony SmartBand

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With Sony recently bowing out of the PC market in favour of pushing its smartphone arm, we expected big things from any new devices announced at MWC.

It seemed that the new Xperia Z2 is really an upgrade of Sony's previous phone. However, i's full little changes that make all the difference. For example, the Z2 uses a wider colour spectrum on its 5.2 inch screen than on previous devices. It uses TRILUMINOUS display technology to better show reds and greens, so images look really clear, and when next to an older smartphone, you can clearly see the difference in colour when looking at the same picture.

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It also has a capability called X-Reality which cleans up low resolution video by analysing a clip and filling in gaps and pixilation.

From a business perspective, the Z2 supports a new feature called Small Apps, which essentially allows the user to multitask by running an app in a small floating window, which could come in quite useful if you needed to look at two things at once in a meeting or presentation.

Obviously any Android business apps that take your fancy are available, as well as the Xperia calendar, Email and Contacts apps to keep everything in order. Plus, any data held on the internal SD card is secured by 256-bit AES encryption.

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It's still water and dust proof, it's light and thin, and it hits the spot for those in the market for a premium Android device. And the best bit? It also comes in deep purple. Perhaps Sony has made the right decision.

You can also use the new Sony SmartBand alongside the Xperia Z2, a life-tracking band that has an advantage over other health monitors.

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The band monitors pretty much everything you do in life and on your phone. It knows when you're walking, running, sleeping, cycling, gaming, driving, chatting. It has a small unit that sits in a rubber band which you strap to your wrist. The core unit can tell by your movement what action you're currently partaking in, and it monitors the applications used on your phone for data such as when you're talking or playing Angry Birds.


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The strap was slightly uncomfortable and a bit loose on my wrist, with two little prongs that press through holes in the wrist band to loosen and tighten the strap. The texture of the band was comfortable though, and it comes in a number of different colours.

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The core has to be taken out and charged once a week. The band is water proof, and the idea is to wear it 24/7 - even in the shower. As everyone in the world keeps getting busier, these devices that can tell us where we're going right or wrong are becoming increasingly more popular, and this band goes the extra mile in giving you more information about your day beyond how you slept, the steps you've taken and the calories you've burnt.

We're hoping to get these devices in for a full review soon, so make sure to check back. 

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REVIEW: short and long term evaluation of Nike+ smartwatch

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I've been using a Nike+ Sportwatch for six weeks and 153km of running, since switching from a Garmin Forerunner 310 XT, which I've had for over two years.

In this blog I am writing down how I have found it. I've also asked a colleague who has been a Nike user for three and a half years, for his view of the Nike+ system, which the Sportwatch uses to track your progress.

The main reason for using the Nike+ device over the Garmin was that my old 310XT was taking ages to lock onto GPS.

The Sportwatch is pretty fast at getting a GPS lock but it did seem to get my pace wrong occasionally. I'm not sure why, but the GPS signal outside our office is rubbish so I can only assume it didn't lock onto the satellite properly.

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I also purchased the £15 footpod Nike+ pedometer and a little pouch for £5, which holds the pod in non Nike running shoes. Nike recommends using the footpod with the GPS for about half an hour to improve its accuracy - and the combination of footpod and GPS seems to work great and my pace seems to be recorded correctly now.

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Getting started on a run with the Sportwatch is a bit fiddly compared to the Garmin 310 XT, where the user simply pressed Start.

On the Sportwatch you have to scroll down a menu and make sure either or both the GPS and the Footpod are ticked on. There has been a few occasions when GPS seemed to disable itself before I begun my run when I was outside, which is not great because I like seeing a map of my route.

To configure and get the most out of the Sportwatch it has to be connected to the Nike+ website and you need to set up a free account. The Sportwatch plugs into a USB port on your computer and connects to the Nike+ website automatically after you have installed Nike's driver software.

Once connected to Nike+ it's possible to configure which parameters the Sportwatch displays while running. I use average pace, and my Sportwatch will automatically scroll through other parameters like distance, elapsed time etc. You can also set auto pause for when you're waiting to cross a road.

Once you finish a run, you have to go into the menu and select the end run option. Again, this is not as easy as on the Garmin, but you get used to it.

Unlike my old Garmin, where the watch communicated wirelessly with a Garmin Ant+ USB adapter on my computer, the Sportwatch needs to be plugged into a USB port to upload data to Nike+.

The USB adapter folds into the watch buckle and Nike provides a USB extension cable. Personally I feel the USB connector on the Sportwatch is a bit fragile and I'm concerned that rinsing the watch could tarnish the USB contacts, which could impact its ability to connect to Nike+.

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Like Garmin, Nike has a dashboard where you can see your runs and compare how you are doing. It doesn't seem as sophisticated as Garmin's Connect site. The brightly coloured bar graphs, animated playback of your run and trophy chest feel more like a computer game than a serious running aid.

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I think it would be hard to measure how my 5k pace has changed over a set period, or compare it to last year's pace. This is something I have been able to do on Garmin's alternative Connect dashboard with my old 310 XT.

The more I use Nike+, the more I think the stats are nonsense.

1. The whole thing about comparing against men of your age is a bit false and probably a bit dangerous from a health perspective given that no one is average - weight, general health, fitness level and  training objectives all need to be taken into account.

2. Average length of run (on Nike+) = average over a month or week (including the days you have  off). For me it does not reflect that I tend to run two or more 8km runs + a long run (like 16 km) each week - ie Nike+ says my average is 6km over 7 days rather than 16+8+8/3=10km average per run.

If I were being mean I'd say the Nike marketing people want you running every day so you wear out your shoes quicker!

3. I'd like to compare how I run against people in the Nike+ community who have the same training objectives ie they are training for a marathon, but Nike+ only appears to let me see how I compare against people my age.

Personally, I would find it really useful if Nike+ could take into account my last race time and training objective (I'm training for a marathon) to show me how much people with the same training goals are doing, their pace, the distance they run on average, and how many times they go out running.

And if it also presented a dashboard where I could then dial down my marathon finishing time to see what level of training I needed - that would be perfect!

Fellow runner Simon Quicke has been a Nike+ Sportband user for over three years. I asked him for some feedback as a long-term Nike+ user.

He said: "If you look at the recent support tweets there have been numerous problems with synching. My main problem with Nike+ is that it is too inconsistent. All you need is one problem and this undermines your belief in the whole system."

In fairness he said technical support has been excellent But he said: "It is the problems that cause distress. You tend to always run with a wariness that the system could go wrong."

Simon's other grip is that the whole system seems to be very US based. "Sometimes Nike will be doing work on the server at times suitable for the States but not good for UK users."

This is quite a long review. Since I switched from a Garmin Forerunner, my expectations are a bit different to someone buying their first smartwatch. For balance I included the views of a long-term user.

Both our experiences illustrate areas where Nike can make improvements.

As a wearable device, the Sportwatch feels bulky, but it is similar in size to my old Garmin Forerunner 310 XT. It is functional and can reliably record run stats. My biggest concern, and this will be a challenge not just to Nike, but to other smartwatch makers, is that these devices live and die by the quality of the software. An unfortunately, neither myself nor Simon think the Nike+ back-end meet our expectations for a device whose main purpose is to measure fitness.

REVIEW: Two days and nights with Hive active heating

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The British Gas heating engineer arrived at 10:30 on Wednesday. Two hours later my central heating was fully connected to the internet. Amazing.

It costs £199, which includes fitting. You get a box that connects into a spare ethernet port. This communicates wirelessly with the Hive heating thermostat and a box of tricks from British Gas that replaces your existing central heating timer and controls your central heating boiler (see pic below).

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Once the heating engineer has connected everything you need to log into https://www.hivehome.com/ with the account details British Gas sends you via an email. I was given a five minute run through of how it all works, and it seems pretty easy - and very well designed.

Basically, you can use a browser or an iPhone or Google App to set up a schedule for your heating (and hot water); you can set heating temperature and you have a full manual overide feature. The photo below shows Hive running on my Nexus 7 tablet. It's a great user interface on the tablet - sliding your finger up or down on the bubble moves the temp accordingly. The one negative is that it needs to log in each time your tablet goes to sleep, and this takes a couple of seconds - not ages, but also, it's not instant.

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Here is Hive running in the Chrome web browser. It's quite easy to change the temperature, amend the automatic schedule and switch the heating  on and off manually.

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This shows I have set the heating to come on at 18:15pm on Friday, and set the temp to 19 degrees. Incidentally, it also shows you the local area temp outside.

As you can see from the image below, the themostat is showing 20.l degrees, which means the central heating will not actually switch on, because the house is warmer than the threshold I've set in the Hive Home portal.

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Now where Hive comes into its own is the graphing function. Yes it's really convenient to boost the house temp before you get in, or keep the central heating off if you'll be coming home late. But what's very clever is how British Gas graphs the average temp in your house. So for "yesterday" the graph below shows that my house was at 20 degrees at midnight and cooled by 1.5 degrees to 18.5 degrees at 20:30.

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Rather than use the automated heating schedule, yesterday evening I switched the heating on manually using Hive from my smartphone at around 20:45, before I got home an hour later. Very cool (or warm and cosy in this case!).

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CES 2014: What trends have we seen?

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The International Consumer Electronics Show has been showered with releases, suggestions and glances into the future of technology. From smartphones to smart homes the internet of things is big this year, as well as wearable technology and everyday gadgets that connect to the internet. So what trends have we seen in the CES announcements so far?

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Image: CES

Internet of things

There was a lot of talk about smart homes at CES last year, and with Samsung announcing a smart fridge that tells you if its light needs changing and Sleep Number demoing its "superbed", it seems that the time of the internet of things is well and truly upon us. But alongside these handy gadgets come the worries about what they will mean for the future of personal privacy. As Edward Snowden said in the UK's alternative Christmas message, people born within the next couple of years may not know what it means to keep anything private. Along similar lines, analysts believe that household items accessing personal data could mean datageddon, as these products will likely upload your information to their company's cloud database where they can be accessed lawfully or otherwise.

Wearable technology

Whether for the purpose of monitoring your health or as a tracker for your food, movement and sleep there have been a number of wearable gadgets announced at CES this year. The Sony "life logging" kit seemed the most excessive of these gadgets that obsessively monitors everything you do in life. The app records stats such as how long you spend on the phone, how long you spend sending messages and other actions, while the wrist gadget provides the user with data about their movements and calories they've burnt. The excuse for doing in this is self-betterment, with Sony claiming that knowing what you do in a day can help you make informed decisions about changing your life.  Other similar products offer calorie and movement counting, such as the Garmin Vivofit fitness band and a onsie to monitor your baby's vitals, leaving us wondering if any sneaky bit of chocolate or quick shortcut will be left un-monitored.

Technology we're not sure we needed

Along with all of the technological advancements, there are always gadgets that initially look cool, and then you find yourself wondering why exactly they have come to be. The first I noticed was the 3D food printer which left me in awe, and I instantly wanted to make chocolate in every shape possible. Then after I had thought about it for a while, I realised that it isn't something that anyone really needs, and it will probably put a lot of TV chefs out of business.

Similarly the stun gun iPhone case promises safety wherever you go (apart from the UK, where you're probably going to get arrested for owning one) and yet if the world has come to the point where you have to turn your smartphone into a weapon in order to feel safe, it's probably not going to help you that much in the long run.

In summary, this year's CES has proven that the world is moving into an age where everything is connected. Whether this will be to our convenience or our detriment, I'm sure we'll soon find out. 

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Christmas gadget gift: Livescribe 3 smartpen REVIEW

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The latest edition to the Livescribe family, this smartpen is a serious contender in the world of recording and note-taking equipment. 

Taking notes with the Livescribe 3 is easy and simple. Download the Livescribe+ app, pair the device via Bluetooth and write in your Livescribe pad. Notes will be instantly transferred to your iPhone if it is on, or synced later if your phone isn't nearby. 

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Handwritten notes can be converted into digital text with the swipe of a finger. This function is a wonder to behold. I was suspicious that the app my not be able to convert messier handwriting to text, as mine is quite easy-to-read, so I tested it on the most illegible handwriting I could find (my dad's) which it easily converted into text. I have to say, I was very impressed.

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In the Notebooks view of the Livescribe+ app, your notes can be sorted into individual feeds, which can then be tagged to create collections of notes, making them easier to access and view. 

This gadget also has a 'pencast' function, allowing you to record sound at the same time as taking notes. You just tap the record symbol on your Livescribe paper to start the recording, then stop to finish. Then once in the app, you can select a particular segment of your notes, and the app will play back the part of the pencast recording that was made when that sentence was written. This eliminates the endless hours that can be spent trawling through interviews or seminars looking for the point you wanted. 

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Text can be shared in several different ways, including copied and pasted into notes or emailed. Notes can also be shared to Evernote, Dropbox and any other installed application that can handle PDF format documents. Pencasts can only be opened by the Livescribe+ application, but can be shared between phones via email in PDF format. 

The new Livescribe+ application is where this pen differs from previous devices. Other Livescribe pens, had internal memory for storing voice recordings made during note taking. The Livescribe 3 uses your phone to directly record audio, increasing the storage capabilities of notes and voice memos, as well as ensuring that the battery life of the device is longer. The pen, although still rather chunky, is significantly smaller and sleeker than previous devices. Unfortunately though, this device is iOS only, so those without an Apple device are out of luck. 

This smartpen is an amazing accessory for anyone who takes a lot of notes or attends seminars. At £129.99 it's the perfect stocking stuffer for professionals this Christmas. 

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