The pen is mightier than the digit

Written By: Peter Abrahams
Content Copyright © 2010 Bloor. All Rights Reserved.

For hundreds of years we have been recording, collecting,
distributing and storing information using pen and paper; this
extends to thousands of years if we include making marks on
paper/papyrus or clay tablets. It is only in my lifetime that we
have been able to use digital technology for these purposes. The
advantages of digital over the pen are numerous and obvious, I
leave it to my reader to make their own list. However, in our
rush towards the benefits of digital we may have ignored and
overlooked the continuing benefits of pen and paper.

This was brought home to me when I saw a presentation by Anoto of
their digital pen. The pen looks like a normal ball point and
writes on normal paper so has the advantages of paper; however,
some very clever technology captures all the marks the pen makes
and these can be uploaded later.

Let me list a few of the benefits of this hybrid solution:

  • Paper is a physical medium that can be read by most people
    without any technology. My apologies to anyone with a severe
    visual impairment when this is not the case. There are various
    situations where this can be important:

    • Legal documents often require the physical paper and
    • A physical receipt is convenient at the end of a
    • More interestingly is the example of a care worker who
      goes into a person’s home, a paper record of all the visits
      can be left so the patient or anyone else who is interested
      can see the record. Whilst a digital version is stored in the
      pen for later processing.
  • Paper and pen are inexpensive in comparison to a PDA or

    • This is important where loss or theft is a major problem,
      such as drug rehabilitation centres.
    • It also allows the distribution of the technology to
      larger groups of users such as people collecting for charity.
  • Paper is light and robust and can be used in challenging

    • Inspectors of both buildings and lifeboats use them in
      situations where electronic technology would get in the way
      of the job.
  • Filling out a paper form is a common experience and therefore
    it is socially acceptable to do it during an interview. A laptop
    or PDA can put up a barrier either because the interviewee is not
    used to the technology or because they cannot see what is being
    written. The paper can easily be shared with either person
    filling in parts with very fast verification.
  • The pen has a very low energy requirement so can be used when
    power is not readily or easily available.

    • Collecting information in the jungle.
    • Recording information in a disaster zone.
    • Just being away from base office for a day or two.
  • Existing forms can continue to be used so requiring no
    training for the operative. The data collected electronically
    will be more accurate and available faster.

    • For example patients can be monitored on a regular basis
      and the information fed back to a central office for analysis
      and any changes can be recognised and appropriate action
    • A calendar of cleaning in toilets can continue to be used
      with the information being available to the users who read
      the calendar, but also to the management on a regular basis.

Although this looks like a low-tech solution the technology
behind it is clever. Basically any piece of paper that is to be
used has a matrix of tiny dots printed on it (this can be done
using a normal 600dpi printer) as well as the form itself. The
pattern of dots is unique for each piece of paper printed and
each small area on the paper. So the pen can immediately record
the time and date, what piece of paper, where on the paper, as
well as pressure and direction.

This information can be sent to a computer through a USB
connection or Bluetooth and a mobile phone. Once at the computer
the form can be recreated to look exactly like the original, and
information can be digitised for further processing.

There is an alternative way of using this technology. Devices are
available that will recognise what they are pointing at and
replay a relevant mp3 file. This has been used for childrens’
books; the child points at the book and the device reads out the
relevant text or makes a suitable sound to go with the picture.
It can also be used for labels on items for people with vision
impairment or people who understand another language.

This technology shows that paper can continue to be the medium of
choice for many applications. Providing inexpensive, low-tech,
friendly, usable and robust solutions.