Robots Rapidly Digitize Media Libraries

Remember when photo scanners were first released and everyone took great pleasure at scanning hard copies of old photos into digital media? Well imagine that on steroids, as now robotic technology has emerged that can automatically scan and copy entire books into digital media format.

Vienna, Austria-based company Qidenus Technologies, named after its founder Sofie Qidenus, is one of the companies that now offers high-end automated book scanning for libraries and other customers seeking to archive the world's books into digital media. While these products are not a consumer technology like digital photo scanners, scaled-down versions for the end-user market are in the works and soon will make it easy for anyone to turn their books into digital files.

For now, however, the high-end scanners are the domain of niche customers like large university libraries and archives, as well as large companies that want to turn technical or maintenance manuals into digital media. Down the line, their use will also be at the mercy of copyright restrictions in terms of what type of material can be scanned and reused without facing the ire of publishers.

To scan books into digital format, Qidenus has developed the Robotic Book Scanner (RBS), which features an entirely automated machine that turns pages, takes photographs of each page, and renders those photos into text.

The technology uses a robotic finger to turn the pages of books, which rest in a cradle and are flattened by glass for accurate scanning. Qidenus derived the robotic finger itself from the company's flagship product -- an automated page turner for sheet music that attaches to a musician's music stand, leaving his or her hands free for playing.

Digital photo technology that includes support for Canon DSLR, Nikon DSLR, and Hasselblad DSLR scans the pages, after which 30 algorithms in Qidenus custom software image-process the photos, and object character recognition (OCR) technology turns those images into text, Sebastian Schramek, a director at Qidenus, said in an interview.

Qidenus is not the only company offering automated book scanning to specialized customers; a spinoff of Xerox in the US and 4DigitalBooks in Switzerland also offer high-end automated book scanning to customers.

One of the biggest challenges to developing the RBS -- and to anyone developing this type of technology -- is to create a mechanical page-turning finger sensitive enough to handle different types of paper used in the books it's scanning, which can be hundreds of years old. "The big challenge during our development was how to work with such a homogeneous material like paper in books -- how can you make the machine work with different kinds of material and how can it automatically turn the pages," Schramek told us.

To achieve this, Qidenus developed an intelligent system of sensors that can adapt to the different type of papers and uses pressure sensitivity so it does not harm what may be fragile pages while it turns, he said.

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