The paper is mightier than the pen

DN Staff

November 4, 2002

6 Min Read
The paper is mightier than the pen

A LED light indicates the status of the chat pen. Green light means it's ready to use, yellow means it's transmitting and red indicates something is wrong.

Waltham, MA-How do you create a communications device that will unite handwriting with the accessibility and speed of the Internet? Anoto AB thought they would have a better chance reinventing the wheel, or in this case the pen and paper, instead of designing a new device. And now, they have done just that.

Founded as a subsidiary of C Technologies AB in Lund, Sweden in late 1999, Anoto AB makes digital paper and their innovative design holds the promise of merging digital wireless technology with the pen and paper. Normally, if you want to send sketches or handwritten notes digitally through fax or e-mail, you would need access to a fax machine, a scanner, or even worse, the painstaking alternative of transcribing the notes manually with a keyboard. With Anoto AB's digital pen and paper design, you could send those notes to any computer, fax, or e-mail just by writing down the appropriate e-mail address or fax number on a piece of Anoto paper. Then with one stroke of a checkmark, the e-mail or fax is sent.

Here is how it works: Miniature dots arranged in a grid are printed on the paper. The Anoto-designed pen uses an infrared camera to capture the position of the dots as a set of coordinates. At the bottom of each page are checkboxes for either e-mail or fax and a form section where you write your fax number or e-mail address. Once you fill out the form and check the send box, the coordinates are transmitted to an application on the ANS (Anoto Network Server)," says Anoto Vice President of Business Development Nino Tarantino.

The dots create a map of unique patterned squares and there are 4.722 x 1021 squares in all. "It was calculated that if you used all the paper in the world and had the Anoto pattern on each piece, it would take over 4,000 years to run out of patterns," says Tarantino. "We manage this pattern and license a unique area of the pattern to our partners." Companies such as 3M, Avery, Filofax, Franklin Covey, and Mead are just a handful of partnering companies that have already licensed an area of the Anoto map to produce the functional paper. Vodafone and BT Wireless have partnered with Anoto as standardized service providers, while Logitech, Sanford, Pilot, and Sony Ericsson are developing pens.

The unique pattern that Anoto has created is based on circular dots slightly displaced from an orthogonal grid with four possible offsets for each dot.

The first Anoto pen to be released is the Ericsson Chatpen. The Chatpen writes and has the same ergonomics as an ordinary ballpoint pen with the exception of having a little more girth. What does make this pen different is that instead of a hollow shell with just an ink tube inside, it also contains an infrared camera, pressure sensor, 72 MHz processor, 1 Mbyte of memory that stores up to 50 written pages, lithium battery, and a Bluetooth wireless transceiver. According to Tarantino, the general design goals of the Anoto pen were affordable cost, normal pen size and mass producibility, compliance with environmental specifications for consumer electronics, and low power consumption.

"We designed it together with Ericsson," says Tarantino, "and minimal power consumption as a design goal led to the idea of having the pen cap become the on/off switch. When the cap is removed, the pen is on and shut off when the cap is on." The pressure sensor in the pen tip works in the same manner for turning the camera on and off. Another design goal Anoto wanted to achieve was to have the same ergonomics as a normal pen, "allowing it to be usable by all consumer groups. The pen's 360 degrees capability allows both left and right-handed people to write comfortably."

Anoto's ultimate goal is to become the global standard with their pen and paper design. Tarantino envisions the day when "you could receive a catalog at home with Anoto-dotted paper and purchase what you would like by checking off the item and entering your credit card information with the Anoto pen." According to the company, the possibilities are limited only by our imagination. Mike McKamen, executive director of Bluetooth SIG, a trade association made up of leaders in the telecommunications and computer industries that tries to drive a low-cost short-range wireless specification, agrees. "The way they implement the wireless technology and integrate it with your everyday life is amazing. The value of wireless technology is that it will allow you to use any application without having to worry about changing wires or connectors for your Nokia or Ericsson mobile phone."

But Anoto technology is not without its flaws. The most notable disadvantage is instead of being converted to text, the pen converts the message into a graphic. Anoto would point out that this allows the user to capture the handwriting as is. Joel Orr, chief visionary at Cyon Research, sees it as a problem. "Your notes are converted into a picture that is not searchable or intelligent, and has no indexing ability." The current alternative is using OCR (Optical Character Recognition) devices. Orr points out that those are not perfect either. "The OCR programs do not recognize all of your characters or engineering notations, which is essential to your notes. The software still has a way to go."

Each technology solves the problem that the other suffers from. "The notion that you will be able to write the way you are used to writing and the idea that the computer can capture it has always been an elusive dream," says Orr. "I do not think the human aspects of the interface have been thoroughly comprehended yet and any attempts to automate it will mostly be of a hit and miss nature." Following Metcalf's law, the staying power of recent digital handwriting applications such as the Anoto Chatpen, will ultimately be determined by their prevalence in the market. It could either become the next step in communication technology or just another gadget added to the list of technologically forgettable misses.

For more information on digital paper from Anoto, enter 535 at www.designnews.com/info.

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