Turning Dane-Elec's Zpen into a Digital Ink Powerhouse

By Frank Ohlhorst  |  Print this article Print

Despite the advances in technology, many businesses are still awash in paper forms, notes and documents. Solution providers can help clean up that mess and secure that data by incorporating some inexpensive tools, such as the Zpen, into electronic forms solutions or reduced paper initiatives.

Everywhere you turn, businesses are still straddled with the inefficacies of paper. A visit to a doctor’s office, hospital, insurance agent or most any professional business usually results in the filling out of forms. Adding insult to injury is the fact that those forms are usually manually inputted into an electronic record of some type.

Surprisingly, it is not by choice that those businesses are still tied to paper—it’s simply because there has not been a better way that is both affordable and easy to use. Sure, many have tried to implement tablet PCs, but that has proven to be a very expensive way to fill out a form. What’s more, some businesses are required to keep a written record, so a purely electronic solution will not do.

That leads us to the Zpen from Dane-Elec.

At first glance, the Zpen has consumer or student written all over it, but a deeper look reveals that the Zpen is a nifty device that offers a great deal of technology for under $100. While it may sound like something out of cheap French film noir, the Zpen is simply a digital pen. It works by tracking the movements of the pen when a user is writing. The pen puts ink on the paper, enabling the user to draw up diagrams, fill out forms, sign documents and have both a physical and electronic representation of what was written.

Out of the box, the device includes the digital pen, a receiver (which tracks movements) and a software bundle that is geared toward the frequent note taker. That software is used to retrieve handwriting from the receiver and create a digital representation of that handwriting. Once uploaded to a PC, users can convert handwritten text to digital text via OCR, create indexes or move sketches into other applications.

Sure, all of this is similar to what one could do with a tablet PC, but there is an unrealized advantage here—the user is also writing on paper or forms so that a physical representation of the text exists, and that may be important for businesses that are driven by compliance or legislation. What’s more, the Zpen is less than one-tenth the cost of the typical tablet PC.

Even though the product may be perfect for the note taker, doodler or typical student, there is an untapped potential here for the channel, and that comes in the form of electronic paper processing. Of course, the most obvious integrated solution here would be forms processing—where a writer fills out a paper form and the data is then transferred into a digital environment.

To accomplish something like that, solution providers will need to turn to digital forms and processing solutions such as Omniform from Nuance or DigitalPaper from Digital Paperwork and then use those product’s SDKs to develop custom solutions.

Using the Zpen is pretty straightforward. The device has batteries in the pen and the receiver, the receiver clips to the top of a clipboard or note pad and records the pen's movements. Handwriting capture is surprisingly accurate, and with a little practice, the device becomes very easy to use and quite reliable.

The Zpen comes with a few bundled applications, including Pen&Ink Viewer, Note Search and MyScriptNotes. Pen&Ink Viewer is used to import handwritten notes into a computer, where those notes can be additionally annotated, converted into PDF files or processed by custom software. Note Search does just what the name implies: Users can store their handwritten notes on a PC and then use Note Search to locate pertinent information based on keywords. The user-created content is stored in an indexed database, which eliminates the need to store the individual image files. Notes can be classified manually and, more importantly, automatically by using the product's integrated handwriting recognition technology.

For users looking to move handwritten content into a word processor or other application, MyScriptNotes should be the program of choice. MyScriptNotes works by examining the captured handwriting images and then performing OCR to create ASCII text. Installing the applications and using the Zpen is quite easy. The bundled applications are stored on the Zpen receiver, which also functions as a flash drive.

For the integrated OCR to function properly, users will need to write clearly and not in cursive. The software offers a training application, which helps to increase the accuracy of the OCR and is well worth the 20 minutes or so that it takes to perform the training.

In day-to-day use, most users will become comfortable with the Zpen as the pen is easy to write with and the receiver is small enough to clip to most any clipboard or pad. There are a few nits to pick here; for example, the only way to inform the receiver of a page change is to unclip and the reclip the receiver to the pad.

Currently, users are limited to using the device for basic note taking, diagramming and general doodling. The included software does a great job of converting those pen strokes into a digital format, and that in itself makes the Zpen worthwhile. On the other hand, those looking to use the Zpen for digital forms or annotation will have to create custom applications for the device.


Frank Ohlhorst Frank J. Ohlhorst is the Executive Technology Editor for eWeek Channel Insider and brings with him over 20 years of experience in the Information Technology field.He began his career as a network administrator and applications program in the private sector for two years before joining a computer consulting firm as a programmer analyst. In 1988 Frank founded a computer consulting company, which specialized in network design, implementation, and support, along with custom accounting applications developed in a variety of programming languages.In 1991, Frank took a position with the United States Department of Energy as a Network Manager for multiple DOE Area Offices with locations at Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL), Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPL), Argonne National Laboratory (ANL), FermiLAB and the Ames Area Office (AMESAO). Frank's duties included managing the site networks, associated staff and the inter-network links between the area offices. He also served at the Computer Security Officer (CSO) for multiple DOE sites. Frank joined CMP Technology's Channel group in 1999 as a Technical Editor assigned to the CRN Test Center, within a year, Frank became the Senior Technical Editor, and was responsible for designing product testing methodologies, assigning product reviews, roundups and bakeoffs to the CRN Test Center staff.In 2003, Frank was named Technology Editor of CRN. In that capacity, he ensured that CRN maintained a clearer focus on technology and increased the integration of the Test Center's review content into both CRN's print and web properties. He also contributed to Netseminar's, hosted sessions at CMP's Xchange Channel trade shows and helped to develop new methods of content delivery, Such as CRN-TV.In September of 2004, Frank became the Director of the CRN Test Center and was charged with increasing the Test Center's contributions to CMP's Channel Web online presence and CMP's latest monthly publication, Digital Connect, a magazine geared towards the home integrator. He also continued to contribute to CMP's Netseminar series, Xchange events, industry conferences and CRN-TV.In January of 2007, CMP Launched CRNtech, a monthly publication focused on technology for the channel, with a mailed audience of 70,000 qualified readers. Frank was instrumental in the development and design of CRNTech and was the editorial director of the publication as well as its primary contributor. He also maintained the edit calendar, and hosted quarterly CRNTech Live events.In June 2007, Frank was named Senior Technology Analyst and became responsible for the technical focus and edit calendars of all the Channel Group's publications, including CRN, CRNTech, and VARBusiness, along with the Channel Group's specialized publications Solutions Inc., Government VAR, TechBuilder and various custom publications. Frank joined Ziff Davis Enterprise in September of 2007 and focuses on creating editorial content geared towards the purveyors of Information Technology products and services. Frank writes comparative reviews, channel analysis pieces and participates in many of Ziff Davis Enterprise's tradeshows and webinars. He has received several awards for his writing and editing, including back to back best review of the year awards, and a president's award for CRN-TV. Frank speaks at many industry conferences, is a contributor to several IT Books, holds several records for online hits and has several industry certifications, including Novell's CNE, Microsoft's MCP.Frank can be reached at frank.ohlhorst@ziffdavisenterprise.com

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