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Pocket Reader `cool,' but use is a challenge

By Jonathan Sidener
The Arizona Republic

Oct 4, 1999

I have in my hand a device that looks like a failed genetic experiment involving a microcassette recorder and a digital thermometer. It's small enough to hold like a fat magic marker. One face has an LCD screen capable of displaying about 30 characters of text.

I press it against the first line of text in a press release. It emits a red light as I pull it across the page. I look down and find the line of text displayed on the little screen.

"Woo hoo," as Homer Simpson would say. This Siemens Pocket Reader is way high tech. The science of optical character recognition, or OCR if you like acronyms, has come a long way in the five years since I last toyed with it.

A photographer walks by and asks what I'm playing with. I explain.

"And then you can dump it into a computer?" he says. "Cool."

I scan the next line and look down at the screen, only to see the error message, "line lost."

"Doh!"

After eight more error messages, I finally get the second line scanned in. Apparently OCR still has a way to go.

I work my way through the remainder of the news release, my faith in technology alternately buoyed and dashed.

Sometimes, I am able to get an entire paragraph in without incident, almost typo free. Some lines come through a little garbled. Other times I get stuck at the cursed "line lost" message.

The Pocket Reader has the size and weight to make it a perfect projectile, and I'm tempted to heave it across the room when it refuses to cooperate.

The scanner is a stand-alone device that can store the equivalent of 20 pages of text. It also has a translation function that allows you to scan one language and have the equivalent word appear in another language.

The scanner connects to a PC or laptop via a wire and a serial port. Text can be dumped into any Windows application. The device can be controlled from the five buttons on its face; however, it's much easier to clear its memory and make configuration changes from the PC software.

The scanner has a little wheel on its tip that starts the scanning process when depressed. It's important to hold the scanner upright as you roll the wheel-tip across the page. This is a difficult process, akin to sitting on a one-legged stool. It makes me wonder why they didn't put three little wheels on the tip, which would stabilize the angle of the scanner.

I struggle through my two-page news release. By the time I'm done, I'm somewhat discouraged. For a comparison, I type in the same information. I'm surprised to find that the Pocket Reader was almost two minutes faster. The scanned text had twice as many typos, but still, I'm impressed that it's faster despite the problems I experienced.

Siemens is marketing the scanner as sort of a digital highlighter for busy executives. Instead of highlighting passages from various pages of reports and marking the pages with folded corners or paper clips, they could could scan in the selected text.

They envision executives trapped on planes or in taxis, scanning away.

The company says that accuracy improves over time. If you carefully follow directions and hold the device upright and scan smoothly, you'll get beyond the beginner's problems that I experienced, they say.

Journalists are another target market for the new product. Judging by the number of reporters who showed interest in the gizmo, there might be a ready market in newsrooms.

Clearly, OCR technology has come a long way, and Pocket Reader is an interesting application based on that progress. But I'm not convinced that the technology is there yet.

I don't know about executives, but journalists are not known for our patience. I'm not sure how many people will survive the learning curve to actually use it.

The suggested retail price for Pocket Reader is $169.95. It can be ordered online through www.pocketreader.com.

$$$

Jonathan Sidener can be reached at (602) 444-8169 or at jon.sidener@pni.com.

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