The Lumber Room

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People, Pens, Paper, and Computers

with 11 comments

(A post from November 2008 that had been marked private for some reason.)

Attended a talk today that was part of the HCI (Human-Computer Interaction) Seminar Series at MIT CSAIL. Some very exciting stuff.

For several decades now (say, since the Xerox Star was introduced in 1981) there have been dreams and hype of the “paperless office”. This dream has not been realised, because paper has many great qualities that suggest that it is not going to go anywhere. In many ways, technologies that have been touted to replace paper have proved rather cumbersome. Somewhat like writing like this:

Pencil encumbered with brick

Some recent technologies that keep the dream alive are the Tablet PC and (new to me) the Anoto (etc.) digital pens that work in conjunction with digital paper (just normal paper printed with a pattern, not “electronic paper”). I played for a few seconds with Livescribe‘s “Pulse Smartpen”, but it was after the talk so I didn’t have much time. Here is a video of all that it can do.

People prefer paper. There have been two lines of work — trying to produce paper-like technology and trying to improve integration between paper and the PC.

I guess both the tablet PC and Livescribe-like technologies fall into the former category. For the Tablet PC, he described a model of interaction that (with a pen) is more natural than the point-and-click model: crossing. The idea is that instead of actions being performed when a target on the screen is clicked upon, actions are performed when targets are crossed across. It is claimed that crossing-based interface is at least as fast as point-and-click, and is faster when you require only “approximate” crossing, and it is possible to change all your applications to work with crossing instead by simply changing a system DLL. He showed a crossing-based drawing application called CrossY; see the video.

Then he showed another work called PapierCraft, which fits into the other line of work. The insight is that although people prefer to read and annotate on paper, they usually get them in digital form. The common example is that academics download an article, then print it out, and work with the printed copy, making annotations etc. The idea is to keep in a database an image of what the printed copy looks like, and then consider people to be working on the digital copy with the printed copy as a proxy for it — when they perform annotations, cut-copy-paste etc., link those operations to the digital copy. See video.

He also showed some two-display e-book readers that can emulate flipping pages, working with different documents, etc; see video.

The speaker was François Guimbretière; see his page for more details. All very cool stuff.

Written by S

Fri, 2011-01-14 at 01:44:21

Posted in Uncategorized

11 Responses

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  1. Which of these can I buy in India and how much do they cost?


    Mon, 2011-01-24 at 06:10:42

    • You can of course buy a tablet PC in India. The cost is probably a little more than that of a laptop (around Rs 30000–40000 I guess?).

      The LiveScribe pen is much more attractive and convenient to use (for note-taking/writing purposes): as easy to write with as pen-and-paper (it is a pen after all) and everything remains digitally available, like a tablet. You can’t buy it in India, but you can probably get someone in the US/UK to buy one and ship it. Their older “Pulse” version costs $100 (≈Rs 4500), and their newer, lighter, “Echo” pen costs $170 (≈Rs 7750). You can also get “refurbished” units starting at $70 (≈Rs 3200). See their store for details.

      Another cool thing you can buy with these pens is their $15 “paper tablet”, which (it seems) is a piece of paper you can write on, to make annotations to things on screen.

      For more videos of what the pen can do, see their website, videos, or, for an extraordinary hack (that prompted publishing this post), this.


      Mon, 2011-01-24 at 08:24:17

      • Thanks. I am worried to see again this notion of an ink catridge with this Echo pen. That means there is some exhaustible resource which it is consuming and which when over will land me into trouble. So once the ink catridge is over I can’t use it anymore since I guess this catridge isn’t available around me.

        This dot paper also seems to be an exhaustible resource! So once those few pages are over, I can’t use these anymore.

        Any other suggestions which gets across these problems?

        Its quite some time that I am seriously looking for a means to take notes or draw diagrams and be able to convert them to pdf and email them. I have set aside some reasonable amount of money which should get me one such pen kind of stuff but not a tablet PC.

        I have also been looking at WACOM but it doesn’t seem to show me the screen on the pad and hence it looks a bit weird.


        Mon, 2011-01-24 at 22:51:51

        • Yes, the ink cartridge seems expensive (even by US standards). Some people have reported success with taking out the ink cartridge and inserting an (appropriate-sized) normal ball-point pen refill, so that may work. :-) The actual pen/ink part is unrelated to the working of the machine, so (in principle) if you don’t care about reading from the notebook but only about having it digitally, you could also remove the cartridge entirely and simply move the pen on paper and write “blind”; the pen will still have the notes when you transfer to computer and you can reuse the paper. :P

          The “dot paper” is also sort-of expensive, and certainly too much by Indian prices: $5 for a 50-page notebook. The pen comes with a software with which you can print your own paper; but you need a high-quality (colour laser printer to print it, which will bring the cost up anyway.

          There are some reviews here (and too many on Amazon), some of which point out problems with the pen (e.g. that it may not be good for very complicated drawing, though it should be fine for diagrams and doodles, and that the recorder can pick up the pen’s own sound of scratching on paper)… it may be a few more years before it’s perfectly usable.

          And there are also “digital pens” from other manufacturers which may work with any ink or any paper, but I don’t know much more.

          In the meantime, there’s still the comparatively low-tech solution of writing with normal pen on normal paper, and scanning the paper afterwards. :-) A scanner costs probably about the same or less than the pen.


          Tue, 2011-01-25 at 06:26:34

          • The whole point is to save the hassle of having loose sheets of paper and then again scanning them.

            Thats what I was hoping the WACOM products will help solve but I was let down to see the absence of a screen.

            So what alternatives do I have about a one-time investment digital pen and paper solutions to being able to electronically share diagrams and notes? (less than a tablet PC)

            In the next few week I plan to pay a visit to a nearby WACOM showroom. But before I make a compromise with that it might be good to know of the other possibilities that you know of.


            Tue, 2011-01-25 at 13:25:21

            • I am basically waiting for a list of suggestions from you.


              Wed, 2011-01-26 at 09:50:49

              • I have already said all I know. :)


                Wed, 2011-01-26 at 12:32:21

                • Anirbit

                  Thu, 2011-01-27 at 10:19:05

                  • This is all very intriguing, especially the Zork game. But I agree that regular pen and paper are still more efficient. And if you have a scanner with a document feeder, as in a fax machine, all you have to do is put a pack of A4 notes in the feeder, press a button, and they will all be scanned in a few minutes (?) while you can go do something else


                    Fri, 2011-01-28 at 09:26:47

                    • Exactly! The only hassle is that you’re stuck writing on loose sheets of paper, or if else if you prefer writing in notebooks, scanning them with more effort.


                      Sat, 2011-01-29 at 02:00:48

                    • I think that depends on the machine: aren’t some feeders able to handle wireless notebooks, the kind whose pages are glued to the back? When you rip them off, you get a fairly straight edge. And perhaps wired notebooks might work as well, as long as you cut off the irregular edge with a paper trimmer: I’d expect feeders to still accept slightly narrower pages? Even so, it will be a bit more work than with the digital pen. I must say that the pen sounds attractive.


                      Sat, 2011-01-29 at 11:09:07

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