In 1872, when Alexander Graham Bell began the work that led toward the invention of the telephone, he wasn't actually trying to transmit sound: he wanted to develop a machine that would make speech visible to the deaf.
Bell's prototype "ear phonautograph" used sound waves to move a stylus across a piece of glass. As Thomas Watson, Bell's assistant, recalled years later, it was during experimentation with the ear phonautograph, studying the precise moment of transmission, that a very random discovery was made.
"[He] had that mechanism at his ear during that fleeting moment, and instantly recognized the transcendent importance of that faint sound thus electrically transmitted," Watson said. "The speaking telephone was born at that moment."
Dr. Ehud Baron, Chairman and CTO of E-pen InMotion, suggests that the range of new digital pens currently appearing on the market may herald the arrival of Bell's vision at last. "I've wondered many times what would have happened if Bell had ended up inventing the phonautograph machine instead of the phone," Baron said. "Our world would be a much more quiet place!"
Helping to work towards that quieter place, a number of digital pens are now emerging. Using a variety of methods, the devices offer new and creative ways to make use of your mobile phone.
Your phone is your receiver
Both E-Pen InMotion, Dr. Baron's company, and competitor Digital Ink, offer pens that work with receivers about the size of a mobile phone. When the receiver is clipped to a piece of paper, two sensors in the receiver triangulate the position of the pen as it writes, in ink, on the page. Digital Ink's pen, called the n-scribe, uses infrared to track the pen's movements, while InMotion uses ultrasound.
The idea, Baron explains, is that the sensors will eventually become part of your mobile phone. Then, to send a message to a friend, all you'll need to do is clip your phone to the edge of piece of paper, grab your E-Pen, and start writing. "Then people will only need a phone and a pen: they won't need anything else," Baron said. "So your receiver is your phone, and your phone is your receiver."
Arkady Pittel, co-founder of Digital Ink, points out that the possible uses of the pen range from taking notes in a meeting and storing them in your phone, to simply freeing up your creativity. "The personalization of messages is driving providers to make symbols and special characters available especially for youth," Pittel said. "We add the natural expression of handwriting: what could be more personal than that?"
A message can either be sent to its destination as is, in the form of a graphical message or a fax-or it can be translated into SMS using handwriting recognition. "One of the hot applications for the pen that we see is in speeding up input for SMS messaging, by combining our handwriting input with handwriting recognition engines," Pittel said.
One of the greatest advantages of both models is the simplicity of the pen. With the sensors embedded in the body of the phone, very little technology has to be encased in the pen itself, so the pens can be lighter and cheaper than most competitors' products. Casio currently offers InMotion's E-Pen for use with its PDAs at a retail price of $150, while Digital Ink expects the n-scribe pen to be available before the end of the year for a target price of $100.
Breadth of functionality
A radically different approach to the digital pen concept is being pursued by OTM Technologies. Instead of writing on paper, OTM's VPen uses a laser sensor to gauge its position relative to any surface-a tabletop, your car's steering wheel, even your knee. Using Bluetooth, it then sends the information back to your mobile phone, where it appears as text or graphics.
The VPen can even be used as a pointer device for your mobile phone. Because, unlike the n-scribe or the E-Pen, it doesn't write with ink, you can simply drag it back and forth to navigate menus, play games, or do anything else for which you would otherwise need a joystick or a mouse.
Gilad Lederer, OTM's President and CEO, suggests that the VPen's versatility is what makes it stand out. "What's unique to VPen is that it really offers a complete solution with the breadth of functionality that you need," Lederer said. "It's a true replacement for all the things that you do with your keyboard and mouse on a PC, enabling you to do them on the go."
Ultimately, the advantage of OTM's solution is that you don't need to pull out a piece of paper to write, and you can do more with the pen than take notes and send messages. The disadvantage is that, because you're not writing on paper or using ink, you have to look at your phone's tiny screen to see what you're doing.
As a result, InMotion and Digital Ink may have better solutions for things like taking notes or writing a letter-but VPen's advantages lie with the fact that it's versatile, it's in one single unit, and it can write anywhere you happen to be. A launch planned at CeBIT this month should further showcase the VPen's strengths.
Printed digital screens
The other major player in the digital pen market is Anoto. Using a miniature camera in its tip, the Anoto pen reads dots imprinted on specialty paper to gauge its position on the page, then uses Bluetooth to transmit that data back to your phone. The drawback-and it's a big one-is that the pen only works with paper that's printed for Anoto. On the other hand, the advantages are equally impressive.
The printed dots allow the paper to be encoded with instructions: a page can be printed, for example, so that checking a box with your Anoto pen tells your mobile phone to send an automatic email response. If paper manufacturers start printing Anoto paper on a sufficient scale, that could be a huge selling point for print advertisers, in particular-and for anyone printing forms that need to be filled out and submitted.
There's another advantage as well. While OTM's VPen requires you to refer back to a screen while you're writing, and both the E-Pen and n-scribe limit you to one piece of paper at a time, Anoto allows you to flip back and forth between different pages without confusion. If one page is printed with dots that mark it as a calendar, and another is marked as a memo pad, the pen will make the distinction between the two.
Ultimately, Anoto's technology is focused on increasing the functionality of the paper, not the pen: the Anoto pen is just the reader for the information embedded in each page. And according to Orjan Johansson, Anoto's Chairman, that's what makes all the difference. "We are printing digital screens which you work on with a pen," he said.
Branded as the Ericsson Chatpen, Anoto will soon be launching its pen in Sweden for Vodafone's customers. According to Johansson, the initial package will include four basic services: sending email from printed paper, sending faxes from printed paper, sending graphical SMS, and storing written notes.
Space for everyone
The pens developed by these four companies are distinct enough that InMotion's Baron suggests competition isn't a concern. "There will be space for everyone," he said. "And in a way, it's much easier to convince people that want to buy a pen that your pen is better, than to convince people that there is a need for a pen. So any competition in this field is only a blessing, because it increases awareness."
And in terms of Baron's hope for a quieter world, the prospects are good. Anoto's Johansson contends that all of the pens will help to improve mobile messaging. "I think it will drive the usage of more services, more messaging, through the phone," he said. "It's a very natural way to do messaging, and I think it will increase the need for higher-functionality phones."
In the end, Johansson says, it's all about returning to a more natural way of thinking. "When I sit down at a keyboard, I can't think," he said. "But if somebody puts a pen in my hand, and I write on a piece of paper and I think at the same time, I'm very productive. It's a very deep, human thing, pen and paper."
Jeff Goldman is a freelance writer covering a wide range of topics for a number of online journals. He currently writes regular articles for Internet.com's ISP-Planet. Brought up in Belgium, Jeff spent the last decade in New York, Chicago and London; he now lives in Los Angeles.