THE DIGITAL PEN COMES OF AGE
by Joe Shea
American Reporter Correspondent
BRADENTON, Fla. -- Writing is hard work any way you do it, but an innovation that is going wireless soon can make it easier for those who suffer from carpal tunnel syndrome - like myself - and others who simply prefer writing longhand but hate the typing job that awaits them afterwards.
The digital pen is just what it says: a writing instrument that displays whatever is written on a normal sheet of paper into the same image on the screen. There has been a significant resistance to these pens for several reasons: first, the earliest ones were chubby little buggers that felt awkward in your hand; there were few applications that could use them; those pens need expensive special paper to use them; and there's the limited-mobility problem of having to connect to your PC or laptop wherever you use them.
Now EPOS, an Israeli high-tech firm, is coming up with a wireless solution joined to a sleekly designed, comfortable pen that allows you to write anywhere and save your work ro a USB flash drive built into the device.
Meanwhile, their "wired" pen - which is not actually wired, since you use the pen alone on the page while a small device connects the ordinary piece of paper to the nearest PC or laptop - will be especially useful for people who want to annotate live PowerPoint presentations, emphasizing with underscores and exclamation points and written notes as they present. Designers can conference live via an application like MS NetMeeting and use pens at several remote locations to work together on a "white page."
Located near Tel Aviv in the town of Kfarsaba, EPOS has grown from three employees to 30 in three years, and recently got an infusion of $10.5 million to help ramp up production of its imaging products. We talked to Boaz Schlesinger, the EPOS vice president of marketing, who called from Israel. Schlesinger, 38, was educated in the United States, graduating from the University of Michigan in 2000 with an MBA, and joined EPOS three years ago as development of the new digital pens was just starting.
Schlesinger says the wired pen has a bright future in education, where educators find it an almost organic way to connect kids to the marvels of computer usage. Imagine a classroom where 30 kids take an exam with 30 questions, each in turn selecting answers or writing them out on a single sheet projected at the front of the classroom. As each responds to one question, the entire class earns the grade. Well, perhaps that's pie in the sky, but from their seats they can answer questions about a map on their desk, point to text on their pages, demonstrate their spelling ability, or jointly design a project - or any number of things that aren't be done in a classroom now. "Each EPOS Receiver is designed to 'hear' up to 96 different wireless terminals, each 'whistling' its own individual signal, via two or more microphones embedded in the Receiver," the company says.
As the EPOS Website explains it, "a tiny transmitter inside the tip of the pen "sends a unique 'whistle' (an ultrasonic signal with specific time and spectrum characteristics assigned to each device) to the Receiver, constantly informing it of its position. The EPOS Receiver 'hears' the whistle and uses the sound to estimate with pinpoint accuracy the timeframe it takes the acoustic wave to travel from the Wireless Terminal to the Receiver, by calculating time-of-flight (TOF).
"Although analog acoustic TOF measurements have been used for many years in determining position, EPOS' innovative technology has taken the acoustic domain and transferred it to the digital domain. The digitization of acoustic media enables EPOS to support many devices simultaneously (very much like cellular phones).
Using TOF calculations allowed EPOS to "greatly enhance" accuracy, power consumption and refresh rate, the site says, and the wireless terminal uses ultrasonic transducers to transform electric signals into acoustic waves.
"The number of transducers and microphones used depends on the application, as does the number of 'degrees of freedom' (coordinates and angles in space) required for the wireless terminal. For example, for the simplest wireless input device (i.e. mouse/pen), only two coordinates (X, Y) of the pen tip are needed, therefore, only one transducer is required in the wireless terminal and two receiver microphones will suffice, the comapny says. "Many transducers can be placed in one wireless terminal, [just] as many microphones can be added to the receiver."
Alas, the fully wireless pen won't be launched until the Consumer Electronics Show begins in Las Vegas begins on Jan. 9, but the "wired" pen is available now, and EPOS sent us one the first 100 made.
I liked the wired digital pen. which has a cool, sleek design, and its retractable USB cable allows you to connect it to your laptop or PC without a lot of cables running all over your desk. Installation is simple; just run the provided CD, click on four successive buttons and it's there.
Mastering the pen is a little trickier. It has a dual function, working as both a mouse and a pen, and to connect it to the paper you just press down on the clip provided and slip an 8 1/2" x 11" sheet inside. Actually, any kind of paper - or even the palm of your hand, I found out when I clipped the transmitter to my fingernail - that you can connect is usable as a surface.
The mouse function wasn't clear to me at first, but I quickly learned you can locate the simple cursor anywhere in a page of text, use it to highlight, cut, paste or save (you'll need a keyboard to create a filename), erase, rotate, colorize and print.
The coming wireless pen uses Microsoft's optical character recognition (OCR) utility (found in Windows XP) to translate handwritten text to typed text. and EPOS says both pens are fully functional within the new Vista program from Windows.
That means I'll be able to go out to Bradenton Beach, pull up a table at the Gulf Drive Cafe and start writing on any piece of paper. The flash drive on the pen will save it all, and when I get home, I can plug then pen into my PC and "dump" it all into a file and have that quickly translated into typed text. There's probably going to be a few bugs in that process, but the technology will only get better.
It's sometimes hard to imagine all the dimensions of the digital future, but EPOS has put one big piece of it directly into your hand. The cost? Probably $49 or so, Schlesinger says.