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

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