For baby boomers, now in middle age, high-tech spy stuff has always been part of the cultural landscape. Remember the advertisements for X-ray spectacles at the back of comic books? The miniature wonders that James Bond was issued before each mission?
Those were all fictional, but that’s not to say that super-tiny, spy-like gadgetry doesn’t exist. Take pen scanners, for example. You can slip one out of your shirt pocket to scan a book, article, magazine, catalogue, receipt or top-secret enemy dossier. Then, you can dump the results, as fully editable typed text, into your computer through a USB cable.
Sometimes, the purpose of using a pen scanner is surreptitious. A researcher might use one, for example, to crib quotes from a precious library volume that cannot be checked out. At other times, the point is just to save yourself from having to retype material.
In either case, a pen scanner is so tiny and portable, it goes where no bulky flatbed scanner has gone before.
Pen scanners have been around for years, but recent tweaks in hardware and software have improved them quite a bit. A sampling of three —from WizCom Technologies, Iris and Planon Systems Solutions—illustrates how many variations you can find on the same idea.
Most pen scanners work like highlighter pens. That is, you roll the tip across one line of text at a time, in either direction. It’s a handy solution for scanning a few lines of a magazine article, numbers on a phone bill and so on, but very tedious for entire pages.
That’s why DocuPen RC800 ($270) from Planon is so clever. The scanning eye on this nine-inch, rounded blue plastic rod is not at the tip; it’s the entire flat edge. You place the DocuPen flat on the piece of paper, parallel to the text, and scrape it downward. Rollers measure your progress across the page to compensate for small variations in the speed of your hand.
The built-in eight megabytes of memory can hold 100 pages of black-and-white text or two full-page colour scans; you can upgrade the storage with a MicroSD memory card.
Later, you connect the pen to a Mac or Windows computer to view the results of your document capturing. The computer will recharge the built-in battery, which can accomplish about 35 scans a charge.
You might think that, given its far greater speed (about five seconds a page), the DocuPen would wipe the floor with its rivals. The fact that it can scan photos and other colour documents ought to make it even more desirable.
But the DocuPen presents some serious frustrations. One is that the document you’re scanning must be utterly, completely flat. Printouts and torn-out articles present no problem, but bound books are nearly impossible to scan with this. Also, you can’t scan anything wider than the scanning eye itself (about seven inches).
If all you want to do is capture snapshots of documents that you store as TIFF graphics files, Planon’s software for Mac or Windows is perfectly adequate. But if you’re hoping to convert those scans into typed editable text, i.e., to have your computer perform optical character recognition (OCR), then you must install another program, Windows-only, called PaperPort.
This program is good at organizing and manipulating scans, and its built-in OCR software is very easy to use; you just drag the thumbnail of a scan onto the Microsoft Word icon. But PaperPort has a troubled marriage with the DocuPen; one feels crudely jerry-built to accommodate the other. For instance, you’re repeatedly told to turn on the DocuPen itself, even when it’s already on. Even after importing the scans from the pen— by clicking, non-intuitively, a button called Scan, and then another called Download— they’re still not really in PaperPort; you have to select their icons and then hit Transfer.
The OCR accuracy isn’t great. Even on a crisp, perfectly clean laser print of The Star-Spangled Banner lyrics, two of the eight opening lines came out garbled (“Oh say can you see by ~h dawn1s early light”). Photo scans, meanwhile, come out murky and oversaturated. Sometimes, spies have to sacrifice quality for portability.
InfoScan 3 Lite
WizCom’s InfoScan 3 Lite costs about one third as much ($92); it, too, offers an ownership experience filled with highs and lows. It’s a highlighter-style pen, which means that you must scan one line at a time, and it’s solely for text, not graphics.
Once again, the text-recognition accuracy is hit or miss (“What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last Teaming”). And you have to wait several seconds after each line while the software converts it to text.
What’s wild about the InfoScan, though, is that it has a built-in screen, so you can see right away how your scans are coming out. Amazingly, it’s actually a touch screen that you can tap with a toothpick-size plastic stylus.
The on-screen buttons are tiny and sometimes cryptic, and you’re sure to lose that stylus in about three seconds. But this approach means that you can correct a critical misrecognition right on the pen— using an on-screen keyboard —while you still have the original document before you for reference.
Two AA batteries let you carry this thing in your pocket, without a computer, confident that you’ll be able to dump the text into your Windows PC when you return—or even beam it to a Palm or Treo via an infrared link.
Then, again, you can operate the InfoScan in tethered mode if preferred. That’s when you connect the scanner’s USB cable to your computer, open up any program that accepts typing (such as Microsoft Word or a database) and scan the printed material; the resulting text is typed directly into the Windows program. Here again, the only downside is that annoying pause for processing after each swipe of the scanner.
There is such a thing as a pen scanner that doesn’t require that pause—the IrisPen Express ($117). It, too, is a highlighter-style device that you swipe across each line.
In this case, though, the text appears instantaneously on the screen of your Mac or PC without pausing. The software does a very good job of recognizing text, flubbing only one line of the lyrics torture test (“What so proudly we nailed at tne twighlight’s last glea.ming”). One option offers to rejoin words that were hyphenated at a column break; another eliminates the dollar symbol when you’re scanning columns of numbers into a spreadsheet.
If you’re willing to pay $70 for upgraded software, the “executive” version of the Iris software purports to be able to speak scanned text aloud as you go, to translate what you scan into another language, to read handwritten digits, and to scan bar codes.
So why is Iris’ pen scanner so fast and powerful compared with WizCom’s? Because it’s a “tethered only” scanner. It has no batteries and works only when it is connected to a Mac or PC. In other words, it’s just an eyeball; it relies on the computer to do the thinking. The WizCom, by contrast, is both the eye and the brain of the system, which is a much greater burden to bear.
Clearly, then, there’s no perfect pen scanner. Success with all three requires a steady hand, a flat surface and considerable practice. You can have speed and flexibility (IrisPen) if you’re willing to give up untethered portability. You can have one-pass page scanning (DocuPen) if you don’t plan to scan books. Or you can have perfect portability and a touch screen for correcting errors on the spot (InfoScan) if you don’t mind waiting for processing after each swipe.
All three require time to clean up their translation of your text; OCR accuracy isn’t perfect even on flatbed scanners. But, hey, that’s a small price for a modern spy to pay.
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