New 'Pen' Writes Data Into Computers

The pen is mightier than the sword. And in some cases, it's better than a computer keyboard, too.

Consider, for example, how keyboards can be great for entering text information, but next to useless for more graphical tasks — drawing a flow chart or sketching a draft of a new product idea.

And even for some text-based tasks — taking discrete notes at a business meeting, for example — a noisy laptop keyboard just can't compare to the silent simplicity of pen and paper.

But soon, Logitech, a maker of computer keyboards and mice in Fremont, Calif., will release what it believes will be a device that could bridge the seemingly incompatible old and new worlds.

At DEMOmobile, a trade conference held earlier this week in La Jolla, Calif., attending industry executives got their first look at the Logitech io digital pen. Yes, that's the name — io.

How It Works

The writing instrument looks and functions much like a chunky ball point. Drag the pen across a plain sheet of paper and it will leave a trail of ordinary ink. But the "digital" part comes from the technology, developed by a Swedish company called Anoto, buried within the device and on the special sheets of paper that comes with it.

Each sheet of paper contains a unique pattern of microscopic dots spaced approximately 0.3 millimeters apart. The dot patterns act as tiny "maps" for each page. As a user writes on the paper, a tiny camera near the tip of the Logitech pen captures the pattern of dots that whiz by the lens.

A computer processor in the pen crunches through the dot patterns in each image to mathematically determine where the point of the pen is on the page at the moment the picture was taken. By following the changing dot patterns from image to image, the pen creates a virtual trail of where its point has been — and therefore which parts of the page have ink marks.

The pen contains enough computer memory to store the location data for up to 40 pages of writing. A special cradle, included with the Logitech device, transfers the information from the pen's memory to any PC that runs Microsoft's Windows operating system. The cradle also also recharges the built-in batteries that power the pen's camera.

After the page data have been downloaded into the PC, special software will recreate a digital copy of each handwritten page and display them on the computer's monitor. The virtual copies can then be attached as images in a word processing file or even e-mailed to others. Keywords can also be attached to each page to make it easier for users to organize and later find the digital notes.

Potent Portable

Chris Bull, director of retail pointing devices at Logitech, says he believes the io device will be really handy for note-taking executives.

"A lot of people are uncomfortable with taking laptop computers into meeting," says Bull. "Anyone that uses pen or paper will want to take advantage of [io] to help them transfer over to the digital platform," he says.

Rob Enderle, a research fellow with market research firm Giga Information Group in Cambridge, Mass., has seen the technology and is impressed with its simplicity. "It captures anything you want to draw and it's vastly more portable than anything else in this space," he says.

Papers, Please

However, Enderle does note a few potential shortcomings.

For one, since the io doesn't have a built-in display screen, a user can't be sure that the pen is actually capturing their writing until the pen is docked with the PC. But since the pen is actually putting ink on paper, he says at least all isn't lost if the digital pen fails.

But he also thinks that the special paper, which is expected to cost about $8 to $10 per book of 80 pages, could become more of issue with users.

"The paper isn't cheap," says Enderle. And, "It's not like you can drop into any store in any airport and buy the paper. If you run out, the device is dead."

Geared for the Geeks?

Logitech's Bull admits that the device has, for now, very limited appeal — typically the early corporate adopters. "It's definitely aimed at people for work where the core emphasis is on taking notes and being more efficient with them," says Bull.

As such, Logitech has signed up powerful partners to make io-patterned paper that will offer even more unique corporate functions.

For example, 3M will offer a version of its popular Post-it Notes that will help users create electronic "sticky notes." Fill out an io-capable Post-it with a date and time, for instance, and the electronic version will automatically alert the user of whatever was written on the note.

Meanwhile, officials at paper-maker MeadWestvaco in Stamford, Conn., say it will produce notebooks filled with io paper for about the same price as its other "premium or business-oriented notebooks."

Logitech also isn't planning for a world-wide release of the io system just yet. The $199 pen system will be sold to customers in North America, Germany and Austria in November on Logitech's Web site. Retail sales in stores aren't expected until early next year.