A Digital Pen: Mightier Than a Keyboard?

Thursday Jan 13th 2005 by Gerry Blackwell

Logitech's io2 Digital Writing System may not replace the keyboard, but it can help some SMBs reduce costs associated with processing forms and other tasks.

In this day and age of PDAs, mini-notebooks and pocket PCs, it might seem strange that a digital pen could find a home in the business world. When they first appeared a few years ago, they seemed nothing more than a misguided attempt to marry industrial and information age technologies. What was the point?

If you've never seen one, a digital pen lets you write and draw in regular ink — on special paper with an ultra-fine grid — but as you write, the pen's internal camera maps and stores into memory every text character, number, punctuation mark or diagram. When you're finished, you simply place the pen into a docking station and download the data to a computer. Handwriting-recognition software converts your writing to computer-readable text.

Digital pens have come a long way, and today, many small companies use them to simplify digitizing data that originally arrives in handwritten form. Examples of such applications include medical and/or insurance intake forms, customer surveys, construction-site inspections or in situations where a computer or a PDA might be obtrusive or distracting.

In this country alone, we fill out 100 billion forms a year, and each form costs a nickel to print and nearly one dollar to process (according to analyst firm, CAP Ventures). Digital pens can significantly reduce form-processing costs and eliminate transcription errors.

Another reason for using a digital pen: for many people, writing on paper is still faster than keyboarding or using Graffiti-style PDA handwriting recognition systems. Digital pens are also a much cheaper alternative for non-mobile workers whose jobs don't require anything more than note-taking capabilities. Why equip an employee with an $800 laptop or a $400 PDA if a $200 digital pen can net the same result? It's also true that PDAs and laptops can be distracting in meetings. People sometimes focus more on the device than the meeting — or it may appear that way — which can be just as disruptive.

The System
The latest product from digital-pen pioneer Logitech, the io2 Digital Writing System (price: $199.95), works very well indeed. The io2, introduced last September and in stores now, is one of several products on the market that use similar technology. Nokia, Hewlett-Packard, Hitachi Maxell and others also have digital pen products.

The System includes the pen itself, which is slightly fatter than the fattest conventional pen but still quite comfortable to hold and use. It also includes a replaceable ballpoint nib, a USB docking station, two io2-compatible notepads and a pack of io2-compatible Post-it notes, five ballpoint ink refills, color ID tags for personalizing the pen, plus Logitech io2 software for downloading and managing data created with the pen.

The pen's flash memory stores up to 40 pages, and Logitech says the built-in rechargeable battery lasts for 25 pages between charges.

Logitech io2 Digital Writing System
Write On — Logitech's digital pen stores everything you write or draw in its on-board memory. Downloading the data to your PC converts your handwritten notes into text or graphics.

The io2 package also comes with what looks like a trial version of Vision Objects' MyScript Notes hand-writing recognition software. However, a PIN number located on the installation disk unlocks the software, so you get a full copy at no additional fee.

The Paper Trail
While you can use a laser printer to produce custom forms with the fine, lightly printed background pattern that the pen uses to orient itself, you can also buy io2-compatible paper from mainstream companies like Cambridge and Collins. Even 3M sells a pad of io2-compatible Post-it notes. You can also buy a 3-pack of notepads from Logitech.com for $11.95.

The Test Drive
The software and driver installation was flawless. After you install the software, plug in the USB docking station. The package includes a traveling station that folds up for easy packing. On our test system, the docking station worked correctly the first time we plugged it into the USB port — not always the case with other USB devices.

The pen doesn't require a power cable, since you charge the pen's battery through the USB connection. The documentation said that charging could take up to five hours. It took us only 90 minutes.

The MyScript software requires a bit of training, a somewhat tedious process analogous to training voice-recognition software. In this case, you use the pen to write all the most often used keyboard characters in an io2 compatible notepad — twice. Next, write a long page of random sentences — the way you plan to write when making notes. The system can read both cursive and printed writing.

When using the pen, you need to tell the system when you're starting a new notebook, what kind of document you're creating, the subject of the document and when you've finished it. You do this by checking boxes on the notepad pages or in a form field. Making these marks is essential to keeping data organized when downloading. It takes a little learning and getting used to.

When you hand print in a form field, the io2 software on its own can recognize the text fairly accurately. It uses the text in the subject field to automatically create a file name for a document when you download it, for example. Form field text is searchable without using handwriting recognition.

The Writing On the Wall
The only general flaw we found is the time it takes to download and process data. On a 1.6GHz Pentium III PC, it took more than 30 seconds to download a half a page over the USB-2 connection. When you download the training samples, it takes even longer. The MyScript software then has to analyze the training text.

We were able to create enough recognizable text to create a handwriting recognition "profile" on the first try. Our handwriting sample, however, is an odd mix of printing and cursive, which may actually be easier to recognize than true cursive writing. If the program has trouble with your samples, you can correct them on the PC as part of the training process.

Once you have a handwriting recognition profile, MyScript can fairly accurately convert your hand writing to text, and it does it reasonably quickly too. In our post-training samples, it consistently mis-interpreted when we wrote the first person subjective pronoun (i.e. upper case "I"), but otherwise, it was very close to letter perfect.

MyScript provides a somewhat clumsy interface for correcting errors — you click on a line, select the incorrect character in the pop-up text box, and then type over it. If there aren't too many errors, it's easier just to accept the text as it is, load it in to Word, and make the corrections there.

The Logitech software lets you turn io2 hand writing or drawings into graphics attachments to e-mails, simply by selecting an option from the Action menu. The product is compatible with recent versions of Microsoft Word, Outlook, Windows Journal for the Tablet PC, OneNote and Lotus Notes.

Bottom Line
The io2 Digital Writing System worked as advertised and worked well in our testing, with the single exception of slow downloading over the USB connection. Still, that's not enough to overshadow the product's merits. If your business is form-intensive or you simply don't like using a PDA, consider Logitech's io2 Digital Writing System.

Reduces costs associated with digitizing hand-written forms. Economical choice for people who don't like keyboarding.

Slow to download.

Based in London, Canada, Gerry Blackwell has been writing about information technology and telecommunications for a variety of print and online publications since the 1980s. Just for fun, he also authors features and columns on digital photography for Here's How, a spiffy new Canadian consumer technology magazine.

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