Writing to the future

Bring on the pens and paper. Get rid of those awkward personal digital assistants (PDA). Some old technology is about to revolutionize the way we send e-mail, order candy and flowers, and update medical records.

Anoto AB, a Newton, Mass.-based subsidiary of Lund, Sweden-based C Technologies AB, has developed a messaging and data-recording system connecting specially designed image-scanning pens to cell phones via Bluetooth, a short-range, wireless data-transmission technology.

"It's easy to understand and easier to use," says Peter Schnorr, vice president of business development at Anoto. All it takes, he says, is the ability to write - plus Anoto's pen and digital paper.

The Anoto pen's main components are a digital camera, an advanced image-processing unit and a Bluetooth-enabled radio transceiver. The pen also contains an ink cartridge, so you can actually see what you're writing down.

The pen, developed by C Technologies' founder, Christer Fahraeus, registers X and Y coordinates on another Anoto creation - paper printed with a dot pattern that lets the message be converted into a digital image.

"It doesn't matter what or how you write because only graphical representations are transmitted," says Schnorr.

Though WYSIWYG is now the presentation mode, translator applications of every imaginable variation - such as changing handwritten text into fonts and from one alphabet to another - are inevitable, says Schnorr. Intelligent Character Recognition software from Cambridge, England-based Neurascript can do the job, and similar technology can be integrated into the Anoto system, he says.

Using up the digital pattern is hardly a problem either. The algorithm for the dot pattern on one sheet of paper translates into an area equal to the surface of the planet Saturn.

The Bluetooth transceiver, a battery and an image processor, along with a pressure-activated digital camera, an ink cartridge and memory, are stashed inside the pen. The pen, which is activated when the cap is removed, can store as many as 50 continuous pages of solid X and Y coordinates before transmission is necessary.

"Our goal is to get a full day - 10 hours - of active, pen-down writing," says Schnorr.

The camera takes digital snapshots of the pattern every 1/100 sec.; each snapshot has enough information to calculate the exact position of the pen. According to Schnorr, the pen has an accuracy tolerance of 1/1,000 in.

Transmission to fax machines, PCs, handheld computers, cell phones or PDAs occurs only when the writer addresses the message - which can go to one or more recipients - and marks the Send box at the bottom of each page with a straight line. Neither turning a page nor ripping off pieces of paper initiates transmission. With the Send box checked, data can go directly to a PC or through a Bluetooth-enabled device to the Anoto Look-up Service via the Internet.

Anoto Net Service, Anoto's proprietary intermediary, then instructs the pen to contact a service provider's name server and send the information. The server then tells the pen where and how to send the data and in what format.

Limited transmission distance is the biggest potential downside. The pen transmits a signal for just 10 to 30 feet, which puts the writer on a short wireless tether.

One of Anoto's partners, Montblanc, the brand of pens marketed by Switzerland's Richemont AG, is developing a pen for Anoto that should stay below US$100, says Schnorr.

Paper, Paper

Digital paper products, which can be any size and shape, use ordinary black carbon-based ink and standard printing techniques. In addition, because only carbon-based black ink absorbs infrared light and makes the paper pattern visible to the pen's digital camera, noncarbon-based ink can be printed on top of the Anoto pattern without interfering with the function of the pen. "It shouldn't be any more expensive than regular paper," says Schnorr.

Even better, the dot pattern is replicable on any surface that allows 1,000-dpi resolution. Newsprint is a great example, but everything from a whiteboard to a refrigerator is also a candidate.

Scurrying to establish a global standard for digital paper, Anoto is entering into partnerships with as many paper manufacturers as possible. Franklin Covey Co., 3Com Corp. and The Mead Corp. are already on board.

Anoto uses public-key infrastructure and 128-bit encryption based on the Advanced Encryption Standard's Rijndael algorithm, the current U.S. government standard. For certain applications, 192- and 256-bit keys are also used.

Internally encrypted before transmission, all messages are also time-stamped, a requirement for providing digital signatures. Such signatures can't be duplicated.

With the back-to-basics process and products expected to hit the market by the end of the year, comments like "I'll write you a note" will be part of our vocabulary again.

Forster is a freelance writer in Boston.

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