The Magic Pen Offers Promise

March 22, 2004
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GRAND RAPIDS — Occasionally somebody invents the proverbial better mousetrap, but the world isn’t quite sure what to do with it at first.

One instance was the formula that a Soviet academician painfully developed a generation ago describing how radar depicts the cross-sections of objects it detects.

The world ignored his work — until the late ’70s when Lockheed’s Skunk Works used it in designing the F-117 stealth bomber. That same research today underlies everything from solar astrophysics to tornado warnings.

Now take the case of the Anoto pen, a ballpoint on wireless steroids.

Carl Erickson, Ph.D., doesn’t necessarily think the pen will make banner headlines, but he believes it may pervade long-distance education and possibly find use in health care and perhaps in long-distance consultations among scientists and engineers.

Erickson, a former GVSU computer science prof and founder and president of an IT firm named Atomic Object, calls it the “magic pen.”

He gave the Business Journal a demonstration of the device, which is a bit longer and somewhat bulkier than, say, a Mont Blanc. It’s bulky because it contains not only a ballpoint pen, but also camera, battery, processor, memory and Bluetooth transceiver.

One uses the pen to write on ordinary computer paper overprinted with a faint 600-dot-per-inch pattern.

As one writes or draws a diagram on the paper, the pen camera coordinates to the pattern, records and uploads its strokes to its own memory and processor, and then prepares to transmit it.

Upon completing the diagram, one takes the pen — developed at Uppsala University in Sweden where Carlson often is a guest lecturer — and points its Bluetooth light at a Bluetooth receiver on a cell phone.

The phone accepts the material and transmits it to a cell tower. From there it goes to the Internet, only to reappear in seconds on the screen of an adjoining laptop.

A primitive form of the pen costs about $200 at some area stores. But Carlson stresses that it doesn’t have as much memory capacity. And because it has no wireless feature, one must download it by physical connection to a computer.

To him, the wireless feature is vital.

Carlson explains that, for the moment, the diagram makes a roundabout trip via the Net to a server with the dedicated software at UU (Uppsala University), then back to the laptop in Atomic Object’s walk-up offices at 941 Wealthy St. SE.

As a former professor, Carlson says he sees an immediate and very practical use for the device.

“Say a student comes to your office to get help understanding a concept,” Carlson said. “So you explain it, writing out key words and using a diagram. So you do it with the pen.

“We call it an Explanaogram. The student sees it on the laptop. You print off a copy for him.” And, he said, maybe the one-on-one explanation is so good that the prof wants to keep it for next year’s handouts.

The diagram and notes are recorded for posterity, he said. Software transforms the hand-written notes into text and the diagram into a permanent — even color-coded — form. And there it is, retrievable for the next student — or even a new textbook.

Carlson said he could see professors using pens in Internet classes, with diagrams appearing on students’ widely separated computer screens. He also thinks it might simplify charting for doctors making hospital rounds.

“And think of engineers,” he said. “They can’t talk with each other without using diagrams, and then they wad them up and throw them in the wastebasket. These would be permanent.”

Likewise, he said, engineers in widely separated plants could use the magic pen to aid communication in teleconferences.

“We’re not really sure, yet, what the applications will be,” he said. “Right now, there’s no extra money in higher education for things like this. And many manufacturers are on a pretty tight budget.

“But we’re looking for the people who need it.”           

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