Digital Pen and Paper Technology

I have been doing quite a bit of work with smart pens recently so I thought I would drop in a quick primer on the technology.

In summary digital pen and paper allows a user to fill in a paper form, using a special pen and have the data instantly available in a database.

The company that have provided the hardware and processing of the forms are called Pisys Digital. The guys from Pisys Digital have been fantastically helpful with helping make the systems work together. Here is a movie that shows the basics:

The core to the technology is the smart paper and pen. The paper has a pattern of dots on it which allows the pen to record where any mark is made on the paper. When a form is complete the pen sends the data, via a 3G data phone or docking station, to a server which processes the form. Processing can include OCR.

The smart pens themselves also have a raft of other features. There are versions with built in barcode scanners and voice recorders. The pens can also trigger events on other devices. For example they can ask a user to attach a photo from the mobile phone.

Pisys Digital provide a windows service which polls their servers and downloads data as and when it becomes available. An electronic copy (ie a graphic in PNG or PDF format) and the data (in XML) are then sent to a folder on th eserver. The XML can be processed appropriately. In our example it might generate an order that the system fulfills.

There are significant cost savings to be made with this technology.

  • No need for a salesman to write on a carbon form and return it to the office for entering
  • Saves the use of laptops when out on the road
  • Reduction of lead times between orders being taken and actioned

Importing the data into the system requires processing the XML, dealing with any issues that arise from the OCR (handwriting recognition still is not perfect) and then launching any business rules based on the data. Because the technology delivers a graphic of the form issues with OCR are pretty easy to fix. Usually a quick look at the form will allow a user to work out what has been misread.

From a FileMaker perspective processing the data is very straight forward. The XML will require either a XSLT stylesheet to allow direct importing into FileMaker with FileMaker’s import XML feature or you can parse the XML in the FileMaker calculation engine. The nature of the service provided by Pysis Digital screams out for server side scripting using a script triggered as frequently as you require to check the folder for new documents. Typically using a file dialogue plugin (Troi File is a personal preference and works well as a server plugin) that can watch the unprocessed folder, move files to correct locations and rename them as necessary. There is a little gothcha here, remember FileMaker server can only import from specific locations.

Obviously the work I have done relates to a sales scenario and this has coloured my judgement but anywhere people interact with paper, especially were a signed contract is required, and the results end up in a database would be a good place to use this technology.

Damian Kelly

Damian has been a database developer with Linear Blue since 2007. During this time he has developed complex FileMaker solutions in a broad range of industries from Finance and Investment to Manufacturing to New Media Promotion. Damian graduated in Production Engineering from the University of Hertfordshire in 1996, attained his Masters of Engineering from Kingston University in 1997 and MBA from Heriot Watt in 2006. He holds certification in FileMaker versions 7 through 12 and in Oracle MySQL 5.

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