Saturday, June 10, 2006

What's a digital pen?

A little over 3 years ago several of us were introduced to a Swedish company called Anoto via an off-handed comment by Glover Ferguson, Accenture's Chief Scientist, during a visit to the Accenture Research Labs in Chicago. Little did I realize how that single comment would lead to several years of hope and frustration, including the bluetooth scenario outlined previously.

As part of running our R&D initiatives at the Fortune 500 company I work for we came up with a way for our field technicians to utilize some of the same tools they had been using up until now only with updated technologies inside. Specifically the notion of a technician using a pen, phone and paper mapped to a technician using a digital pen, a J2ME phone and Anoto enabled paper.

What's this digital pen and Anoto paper thing? Basically it is a way to print a unique pattern on paper (either on demand or pre-printed) and allow the pen to "know" where it is whenever it writes anything on the paper. If you have seen the FLY pentop computer you have looked at digital pen technology. The pattern on the paper can be made essentially invisible to the human eye and it allows the pen to record the strokes, angle of writing and time a stroke is made. You can then determine if you were in a checkbox on the form or put the strokes together and do handwriting recognition to completely rebuild the form for display to an end user or to interpret the data and make it computer readable/actionable.

This allows us to print out an invoice on a piece of Anoto paper, dispatch a technicain to the home on the printout via a J2ME app that gets notified of work-orders, track the tech with the built-in GPS on the Nextel phones, capture the info on the form as the tech writes it and make it available for our call center or the end-user to see what was done, where and when.

We ran several successful pilots of the technology. We based it on code directly from Anoto, as well as from their partners HP (FAS since discontinued in the US) and also Expedata. The technology works. Both docked and wireless versions were rugged and delivered the experience we expected. However, as is the case for much of the blog you read here, there were so many things that happened in parallel that destroyed any opportunity to reasonably deploy a digital pen solution within our organization that is beyond funny and simply painful for me to remember.

I still think this technology has incredible merit, especially as you deploy the second, third and beyond "apps" via the technology. Contact me if you want to know how/why. After all, I'm a digital monk for a reason.

Core Anoto technology

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Use Bluetooth? With a Nextel?

Well then this may fall into the "what have you done for me lately" category.

When I joined my current employer I found out that we are one of the largest users of Nextel phones around. At the same time we had been turned on to a couple of technologies that would really benefit from the use of Bluetooth on a Nextel phone. One of those uses was the Anoto Digital Pen (see post coming soon). The other was for a way for our field technicians to synchronize in the field via a dial-up network connection. The bad part? Nextel didn't have a Bluetooth phone.

We had several meetings discussing how the application we had could run on the J2ME environment already in the i58 (Condor) phone. Discussions about the new phone took place both with Nextel and Motorola. The new phone would offer even more Java capabilities and we asked for Bluetooth and a way for an enterprise to better manage software applications on the phone. We also asked for a large display, rugged capabilites and a candybar design (flips wouldn't last in our techs hands). For whatever reason one of the parties had a real issue incorporating Bluetooth into their phones. They didn't want to do it. Reasons for this ranged from security issues to resource availability. Yet they kept falling farther behind other carriers and they didn't seem to care. Bluetooth to them was an end-user feature for headsets not for data transfer(s) and business use.

After many discussions and examples of use we got much of what we asked for. We provided devices that we wanted to work with the Bluetooth profile being developed and we asked to be kept in the loop on software developments. Sadly the software side didn't quite pan out the way we hoped (automated remote software installation capabilities were missing) and the phone keypad was already locked down by the time we saw an initial prototype and provided our feedback saying it was insufficient but we did have Bluetooth.

So remember me if you have used an i605 with Bluetooth.

Where were you the week of Aug. 7th 1990?

I was on my way to US Central Command!

As I've described previously, some of the work I was doing at ANL revolved around visualization of wargames. Imagine my surprise when I get a call on a Friday or Saturday of that week telling me to gather my stuff and be on a plane to Tampa. We had developed a number of applications for CENTCOM and also were some of the few that understood NeWS, the window system which some of the visualization tools were written in.

Something to remember is that we had no security clearances. We were called down to a very secure building, where I almost lost my favorite mix tape in a previous visit, where we were always escorted around with folks yelling "Red Badge!" as we walked into rooms with code key locks. This alerted everyone to secure potential secret information from us. We soon found out that what was wanted were some changes to a system that displayed flight sorties and some code of ours that modeled a war game. The major change was in the visualization. Not for the screen but rather for print outs. What they wanted was to have a "driver" to output the maps and symbology of the on-screen visualization to a huge plotter device they had.

If I recall correctly it was an HP plotter and this was our first exposure to PCL. So we were asked to essentialy code our PostScript drawing routines (which was the underlying imaging system utilized by NeWS) to PCL for display. We spent several long days working away. There were no windows in this place and the Lt. Col. that was our chaperone asked us if we wanted something to eat. Sure... Pizza! Little did I know this would be the source of another "first" in my life. The "pizza" arrives. Dominoes, WTH is Dominoes?!? Eat a couple pieces... GACK.. Worst pizza I've ever had in my life! But... It was really late, we were hungry and the food was cheap. We survived.

After several days it was time to head back home. Operation Desert Shield was in full swing. It was exciting to work on the mapping and output routines. It was only after the visit that I found out that the room we passed on the way to the restroom, which was guarded by two guys with rifles, was where Gen. Schwartzkopf was hanging out at the time. The maps we were trying to print out were specifically to present in those briefings. Later I also found the writeup (see link below) which details why some young kids and game programmers etc... were suddenly being called on to help with the planning for something like Desert Shield/Storm.

In the time that passed it was weird to see our friends in the service put on the desert fatigues and load Sun workstations into an air-conditioned trailer that was dropped into Kuwait. Amazing to get emails from our guys with questions about the software we had sent them from the post out there.


Desert ShieldTimeline