A team at the Thomas J. Watson Research Center has developed a writing tablet whose "smart paper" medium enables writers to save all their handwritten notes and drawings in their computers. Handwriting recognition software, also developed by the Watson team, can transform the digitized text into standard ASCII characters. The device has potential uses in fields as diverse as law, journalism and civil engineering.
After he had spent several years developing an advanced handwriting recognition system for cursive writing at IBM's Thomas J. Watson Research Center, Krishna Nathan faced a problem that had nothing to do with recognition technology: there was simply no platform available for the system. IBM had decided to discontinue its pen-enabled ThinkPad PC models in order to concentrate on peripherals that had more customer demand.
"I realized that even if you had perfect recognition technology, you would still need a vehicle to deliver it," says Nathan, recalling those days. "Our handwriting recognition system was working well, but the industry needed a platform. I was jealous of the telephone - a platform that makes speech-recognition-based applications so useful."
Nathan, who heads the team developing pen-input systems at Watson, conducted several brainstorming sessions with his colleagues before they hit upon their breakthrough idea: ordinary paper. Despite being the world's most common and popular handwriting medium, paper seemed out of the question at first. After all, the consensus at the time was that the rapid rise of the "paperless office" was driving it out of the world of personal computer users. Nevertheless, the team figured that paper, universally accepted for handwriting and record-keeping, was the perfect medium.
Thus was born a 12-ounce tablet that transforms an ordinary writing pad into a "smart paper" medium. When PC users simply write, draw or doodle on any standard 8 1/2 x 11-inch pad of paper, a tablet underneath the pad captures the pen's movements electronically and digitizes them for storage and subsequent transfer to a PC. From there, a true copy of a page can be faxed or stored. The handwriting on a page can be run through a powerful handwriting recognition engine and the resulting text integrated into a word processor program or other application. And, of course, the paper is exactly like any other piece of paper and can be saved, mailed, faxed or simply thrown out.
Why paper? For one thing, it eliminates in one swoop the major problems of traditional pen computers: no more slippery coated-glass displays to write on; no more unreadable screens; no more cumbersome eight-pound devices to lug around; and no more awkward stylus to fumble with. Powered by four AAA batteries, the tablet can operate for a week of normal usage, thereby eliminating the power consumption problems that pen computers face.
Epitome Of User-Friendliness
The device personifies user-friendliness. Users write on it as they would on a normal pad of paper. Their work is automatically time-stamped by the device - a useful feature for subsequent filing and retrieval of their work. They can insert keywords into files to simplify archiving, searching and calling up files later. Moreover, all forms of input - text and drawings - are saved as true copies, which can be valuable as records in applications from law enforcement and medicine to journalism and insurance. The paper, of course, is a record that can be handed out, stuffed in a pocket or mailed - a possibility previously unavailable to computer users.
The tablet's versatility could make it useful in a myriad of applications. Its ability to cut and paste, highlight and tag words in real time will help in archiving and indexing, and will reduce the two-step data entry process to a single step. One market segment alone - users entering data for processing from paper - represents $250 billion per year.
Nathan believes that users of sophisticated computer applications will be among the first to find the technology particularly attractive. "For instance, the tablet can be bundled with existing document management software like Lotus Notes® in order to leverage Notes users' installed base," he says. "In this case, the device could be viewed as a Notes-enabled peripheral." In addition, IBM is offering OEMs and other third parties the opportunity to develop their own niche products based on the device. The A. T. Cross Pen Co., working with Research, plans to introduce a product based on the technology next year. It will resemble a conventional executive note-pad in appearance.
But it is as a generic stand-alone
peripheral that the tablet is likely to
appeal to the largest market segment. The device enables computer users to import, view and manipulate their handwritten data from a wide variety of applications. The lightweight device is also likely to find use in situations in which computers are impractical, such as at industrial sites and shipping and receiving docks.
"I want to pursue the checkbook form factor," says Nathan. "One of the beauties of the technology is that there are practically no form factor constraints." Indeed, various form factors could appear on the market - in organizer, address book, checkbook, steno pad, even oversized form-factor tablets. Nathan is negotiating with companies already dominant in various vertical markets in order to develop products based on the technology.
Speed From The Lab
The tablet is a product of IBM's new drive to move basic advances in the lab more quickly to development and commercialization. Research is now working in partnership with A.T. Cross to bring the tablet to market. The advantage of working with a partner like A.T. Cross is that they already have superb pen products, name recognition and marketing channels for writing instruments. The model of Research as entrepreneur is an important new role for Research that provides an additional route by which its technology can rapidly enter the marketplace.
W. David Gardner is a freelance writer who covers the computer and telecommunications in industries from New York City.
Source of the Magic
The smart-paper tablet is a simple add-on peripheral that will be available off-the-shelf for the millions of PC users with a 486 or PentiumĘ processor. It connects to a PC via a standard infrared or serial cable port. Its magic component isn't paper. It's the technology of the tablet and the handwriting recognition engine.
The tablet digitizes signals from a user's pen. It uses a 16-bit microprocessor and at least 1 megabyte of nonvolatile flash memory, which is capable of storing 50 pages of notes. A matchbook-sized display provides feedback, and user-customizable buttons enable users to enter simple commands quickly and easily. A custom pen with a tiny battery has enough power for 18 months of normal usage.
While the innovative use of paper is the key feature of the tablet, the device also depends on its handwriting recognition engine. "The idea of writing on a tablet and converting it to text has been tried before," says Nathan. Many earlier attempts used pressure-sensitive screens. It's the combination of handwriting captured on a paper platform, the ability to manipulate this handwriting as though it were text, and the deferred recognition on the PC that is different here."
According to Jayashree Subrahmonia, who helped develop the technology with Eugene Ratzlaff and Michael Perrone, the handwriting recognition engine is the most advanced on the market. It is unique in that it allows those users who may not be satisfied with the out-of-the-box handwriting recognition accuracy to customize the engine to their writing style. The system typically learns a user's distinctive writing style in 30 minutes by means of a training program. After customization, recognition accuracy for the user will improve significantly.
The handwriting recognition system has been well-received since it was first introduced on the pen-enabled ThinkPad in 1992. The system has been improved since then and the team plans to continue improvements. As long as users write consistently - not necessarily neatly - the system will recognize their scrawl.