OVER THE PAST 5,000 years, the evolution of the pen has taken a remarkably leisurely pace. It has gone from sharpened sticks scraping cuneiform on tablets of Sumerian clay to become, in turn, a quill, fountain pen, ball-point, felt nib, and currently, the ink-gel pen. The most significant innovations in the development of the pen have been the addition of ink and the refinement of the nib.
But now plans are afoot to overhaul the humble writing instrument completely and turn it into a wireless digital device that converts the written word from ink on paper to digits that can be transmitted by a mobile phone or stored on a personal computer or network.
Getting words from paper to a network or PC, however, is no easy matter. First, the digital pen has to sense what is being written, convert it from graphical form into text, and then beam it to a nearby device for storage or transmission via the Internet.
Patterns on paper
The special paper is like an "intelligent map". One area of it can be used for making notes, another for ticking a box that says "Send this note as e-mail," or still another saying "Send this note as a fax."
Anoto's pen has been chosen by mobile phone company Ericsson for the "Chatpen," which will send data to mobile devices using a Bluetooth wireless chip, and is due out in coming months.
Anoto has also forged alliances with various paper and stationery companies, including Filofax and Mead Corporation, two makers of pocket organizers and desk planners. Each day in a diary or calendar will be ingrained with the Anoto pattern, so that an Anoto pen and its associated software can process the scheduling and reminders electronically.
In the future, companies may be able to license segments of the Anoto pattern to use in their print advertising. Consumers would then be able to look at adverts in newspapers or magazines and tick Anoto-patterned boxes that say "Buy this" or "Send more information."
Conventional notepad to PC
The technology used in the pen -- optical translation measurement -- is based on a classic Michelson interferometer developed in the 1880s to detect the mysterious "universal ether" that scientists then believed to be the carrier of light waves. With a minute interferometer placed close to its writing tip, the v-Pen is sensitive enough to analyze the Doppler shifts (i.e, changes caused by movement) in the writing surface as the pen sweeps across it (even the back of a hand can be used as a writing surface). The pen's software then recognizes the letters being formed and turns them into a stream of digital information.
Pen vs. mouse
Saying that, it is hard to imagine how the convenience and portability of the pen could be bettered. Stuff a pen and notebook in your pocket and you can write a novel in a cafe or in the middle of a desert. The same is true of digital pens -- although you would need to carry a mobile phone to transmit the data to a storage device for processing later. In the future, though, it might be possible to store gigabytes' worth of text and image data in the pen itself. A development like that could see the (not so humble) pen living on for a further 5,000 years...2/4/2002
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