Thursday, May 04, 2006

Has The Time Of The *Portable* Scanner Finally Come?

The 80’s pre industrial band Art of Noise had a line in between songs on their “In No Sense” record that repeated “How rapid is rapid and how quick is quick?!”. Often in this new fangled techno world of ours I find myself redefining the answer to that very question.

Recently we got our hands on a early Beta of the Kurzweil NFB Reader. This device is a combo hybrid of an off the shelf digital camera and a off the shelf PDA running a modified scanning engine. The two devices are connected via USB. The combined unit allows you to scan in documents, signs, flyers and a whole host of materials from virtually anywhere.

Sounds awesome doesn’t it? Well it kind of is and kind of isn’t. I will explain in a second.

The AdvantEdge Reader is another entry into this new arena of Stand Alone Portable OCR systems. It uses two units as well. The Reader connects to the Small Talk Ultra [that freaking sweet palm top computer from GW Micro] to perform the same tasks as the Kurzweil NFB Reader. Here’s the press release.

So again I ask is this cool or what? And again I say kind of yes and kind of no. Here’s why..

Whenever devices like these come onto the market you have to deal with some serious issues. I like to call these issues the “Sci Fi Effect”. In the late 70’s TV show “Battlestar Galactica” Loren Greene spoke into a microphone and his words just appeared on his computer monitor. People were fascinated and the drive for this technology has been on the forefront of bad typists minds ever since. Several years later these same people went out and bought the first version of Dragon Dictate and Dragon Naturally Speaking with anticipation of reclining back in their leather office chairs babbling away at their 486 era computers. The result? Well it wasn’t like on the TV that’s for sure.

At the 2000 CES Bill Gates said that voice recognition was some time off in the future for Microsoft. He mentioned that it wasn’t that the computer couldn’t hear you. It was that the computer couldn’t understand you. It would take tons of on board memory to allow the computer the ability to move through a decision tree [programming talk for what to do next] on the fly. So the red dog read the red book. May end up all being r.e.d. instead of the dog needing r.e.a.d. Now flash forward six years to Windows Vista. The new “Ease Of Access”, once called Active Accessibility, has some basic Speech Recognition built into the Operating System. It took that long for technology to catch up to the dreams of many in the keyboard impaired community.

So back to the whole Portable Scanner thingy.

These early units are just baby steps to a better life for all. But do they let you act like Loren Greene’s Commander Adama in their ease of use? Nope. In fact in the case of the K-NFB-Reader it can be quite frustrating.

Getting your document or material lined up, holding the Reader at a good enough distance [when it’s not docked in it’s reding stand] can be a challenge and after all that your accuracy can be about 70% of what K-1000 and Open Book hold in current performance. And using a traditional Stand Alone OCR solution is faster. Not portable mind you but faster. And for around $3,000 you have to really decide if you want to be an early bird adopter to the party.

Another thing you have to realize is that both Portables mentioned today require you to keep two separate devices charged. You can forget to charge the digital camera and have the PDA ready to go on the K-NFB-Reader and the same goes for forgetting to charge the Small Talk Ultra. In fact that’s easier to do because the Ultra only has a three hour battery if you are not using the extended battery option.

Don’t get me wrong this stuff is super cool and everyone will want to make a deal with the devil to get one, however, the resulting buyer’s remorse may have you wishing that you had waited for the technology found in the Battlestar Galactica remake on the Sci Fi Channel instead.

Always try before you buy on any Assistive Technology I guess is the ultimate point to be made in this long and normal rambling post.

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