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Silicon Valley Breaking News
Mercury Center Breaking News

Posted at 1:40 p.m. PST Saturday, January 22, 2000

Pen scanners go away with the wrong impression

Handy devices have their quirks

New York Times

If you have ever done research in a library, you have probably encountered this annoying situation: You've found a paragraph of helpful information in an otherwise useless book. There is no point in lugging the book home for the sake of those 300 words.

So you face two choices: transcribe the paragraph by hand or trot over to the photocopy machine, stand in line, fish around for change and make three copies the wrong size before getting one that captures what you want.

A new generation of hand-held gadgets offers a third option: scan in the 300 words with a wireless pen-size scanner, tuck the scanner into a pocket and transfer the data to your computer when you get home.

It sounds ideal. Simply holding one of these lightweight scanners, sometimes called digital highlighters, can conjure up visions of superior organization skills.

Soon, you might think, you will be rolling these scanners over phone numbers from the Yellow Pages and over Web addresses too cumbersome to jot down. There will be no more need to clip calendar information from magazines -- you will just scan it in.

In reality, the scanners are not quite so easy to use, but they do show promise for researchers and mobile professionals.

The first step, running the digital highlighters over the desired text, takes a little bit of practice before you can get a clean copy. And transferring that data to a computer can be difficult for people who are not accustomed to crawling under their desks or moving furniture to plug extra appliances into their PCs. As with any new technology, these scanners require patience and a willingness to tinker.

First offerings

At least three of them are now on the market: the C Pen from C Technologies, the Pocket Reader from Siemens and the QuickLink Pen from Wizcom Technologies. They are lightweight (about three ounces each), include batteries (two AAAs) and are comfortable enough to remind you of holding one of those chunky pencils in grade school.

Each pen has a tiny display screen and software that lets you transfer text from the scanner to a computer.

The Pocket Reader is a good choice for people who want a no-frills version. The other two are laden with features like address books and Web-link databases. (The makers of the C Pen, for example, are calling it a new kind of personal digital assistant.) That makes them simultaneously more flexible yet more complicated to use.

The Pocket Reader is being marketed as an inexpensive option for budget-conscious students. It sells for about $100 and is so easy to use that you won't need the manual to get started. But it does not let you organize your scanned data into files or edit the scanned text on the pen's display screen, as the other two do.

The C Pen comes in two versions, both packed with features. For $200, you can get the C Pen 200, which comes with an address book. The C Pen 600 costs $249 and, in addition to having an address book, translates words into different languages.

Both versions can also write as well as read. (To write the letter A, for example, put the pen tip on a printed page and move the pen as if you were drawing an oversize A.)

But to transfer the data to a PC or laptop, the C Pen requires an infrared port, something many computers, particularly desktops, do not have unless you have installed an infrared adapter.

The QuickLink Pen, which sells for $149, also includes an address book, but its display screen is cursed with a confusing interface, and its editing software makes users jump through hoops before seeing and editing the notes they have scanned.

Worse, when I tested the pen, I was plagued with technical glitches while trying to send data to my PC. On the brighter side, the pen can be adapted to scan data into tables, spreadsheets or customized databases. (It also comes with a pen cap that will no doubt be lost within a few days of use.)

Most critical, of course, is how accurately these scanners can record text -- a capacity known in technical circles as optical character recognition. To find out, I headed for my cookbook shelf.

I immediately gained a new appreciation for old-fashioned highlighters. Those pens are forgiving. You can run that pastel streak across a line of text, waver a little, maybe even catch only half a word, and still get all you need. When you return to the text, you immediately see what you meant to highlight.

Digital highlighters, in contrast, require a steady hand and a meticulousness that does not quite fit with the notion of saving time. They also, by design, do not give you the advantage of context; when you look at the scanned text later, you are looking at it in isolation, so you cannot glance at the page to fill in any blanks.

The digital scanner lets you avoid carrying that page, and the book that holds it, but there is a price for that convenience.

In other words, don't expect to zip over those references to cups of sugar and sticks of butter. That pinch of salt might come out as an inch of salt instead.

With the C Pen, I ended up repeating some of the recipe (``increase the heat,'' ``increase the heat''), after I noticed that one line had not been scanned correctly. With QuickLink, unsalted butter became unsalted ``bueeer.'' With the Pocket Reader, stirring became ``stiwing.''

Aside from those blips, however, all three pens performed relatively well. The three versions of the recipe were legible, and they took only a few minutes to scan and transfer to a PC. Quick editing on the computer mended any damage.

Errors apparent

In another test, I glided the pens over a listing in the eye-straining weekly calendar in The New Yorker. (Bizarre body art, in case you didn't know, is now on display at the American Museum of Natural History.)

This time, the scanners faltered. They picked up the words ``nose ornament'' but garbled pertinent details like the museum's hours and address and the dates of the exhibition. The tiny point size (and my struggles to align the tip of each pen exactly with the text) wreaked the havoc.

Developers of the digital highlighters acknowledge the limitations. For now, they say, the scanners may be mostly used by professionals who spend a lot of their time transferring printed words to computers -- and who have the time to get used to the scanners' quirks.

Tom Tesluk, chief executive of Siemens' Pocket Reader division, said he expected that more people would find a need for the scanners as the devices' capabilities improved. The scanners will also start becoming popular, he said, when more people see others using them -- whether for butterscotch recipes or for taking notes.

``When personal digital assistants first came out, people looked at them and said, `Do I really need this thing?' '' Tesluk said.

``Now it's hard to find someone without a Palm or other device. I think that's the same path that this will follow as well.''


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