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Brits develop smart pen of the future

October 16, 1998
Web posted at: 3:40 PM EDT

by Kristi Essick


(IDG) -- For those who have never progressed past the hunt-and-peck method of typing, British Telecommunications' research laboratory has come up with a prototype of an intelligent pen that records writing and translates it into text on a computer screen.

Dubbed SmartQuill, the sleek and stylish prototype pen is different from other electronic pens on the market today in that users don't have to write on a special pad in order to record what they write. Instead, SmartQuill contains sensors that record movement by using the earth's gravity system, whether you write on paper or in the air. SmartQuill isn't all space-age, though -- it contains an ink cartridge so that users can see what they write down on paper.

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"Why should people use a keyboard when they can use a pen?" said John Collins, project manager for SmartQuill at BT Labs. Many people have never learned to type quickly and accurately, but everyone knows how to write, he pointed out.

People could use the pen in the office to replace a keyboard, but the main attraction will be for users who usually take notes by hand on the road and type them up when returning to the office, Collins said. SmartQuill will let them skip the step of typing up their notes, he said.

The pen works in conjunction with a regular PC, onto which users install special handwriting recognition software developed by BT Labs, Collins said. The lab has several SmartQuill models in the works, including one that communicates with the PC via a radio transmitter, but the current prototype hooks up to a PC via a cable and electronic docking station called an "inkwell." It can also be connected to printer or modem.

Users write down notes in their regular handwriting and the movements are stored within SmartQuill. Up to 10 pages of notes can be stored locally on the pen, Collins said. Once the pen is hooked up to the computer, the handwriting recognition software translates the movements into text on-screen. Unlike many handwriting recognition programs, the SmartQuill system analyzes movements instead of shapes, Collins said. This allowed BT to get rid of the electronic notepad associated with most computer pens.

SmartQuill contains a few local applications such as an address book, daily planner, and calculator. Users can enter information into these applications by pushing a button on the pen and writing down what they would like to enter, Collins said. There is also a small three-line screen to read the information stored in the pen; users can scroll down the screen by tilting the pen slightly, he said. Future models could receive e-mails and pager messages via a wireless messaging system and could use digital signature recognition for security purposes.

BT is hoping to license the SmartQuill concept to interested hardware manufacturers, and believes a product will be on shelves within two years, Collins said. The price tag could hover around 200 pounds sterling -- $340 or more -- but no pricing has been set as of yet, he said.

At the moment, SmartQuill works best when users write in capital letters, but BT Labs is working on improving the handwriting recognition software and expects it to understand cursive by next year. In the future, Collins predicts there will be a whole range of SmartQuill pens -- everything from a high-end model for executives to a basic one for kids to use in school.

Kristi Essick is a correspondent in the Paris bureau of the IDG News Service, an InfoWorld affiliate.

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