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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.