Cell phones get new job: Portable scanning

Scientists at Xerox Research Centre Europe are adding document scanning to the cell phone's functions.

4 min read
It's a concept the fictional spy Maxwell Smart would adore: the means to transform the diminutive camera in your cell phone into a portable document scanner.

Imagine discreetly photographing contracts, notes jotted on a whiteboard or other handwritten information while on a research mission or a sales call, and later converting them into a format for processing, either in hard copy or on your computer.

That's what scientists at Xerox Research Centre Europe in Grenoble, France, envisioned when they developed mobile document-imaging software, which should reach the market later this year.

The technology works with camera phones that have a resolution of at least 1 megapixel to create digital images of documents or presentations. It checks and corrects for blurriness and shadows, then compresses the image into a file that can be transmitted to a fax machine, to another phone or to a computer via a multimedia messaging service--MMS--or Bluetooth wireless technology. The images can be printed later.

"When we give it to test users, they appreciate it easily," said Christopher Dance, senior scientist and image-processing manager at Xerox Research Centre Europe. "Even the simplest of applications--just sharing the documents and storing the documents you have captured. You could even handwrite a message and send it to someone's phone."

Xerox is talking with potential licensees through its licensing agent, IPValue Management. The technology, which is patented, could find its way into users' hands by midyear. Among potential licensees are handset manufacturers, wireless carriers and developers of document management software.

The Xerox software works in a four-step process. To create an image of an 8.5-inch by 11-inch piece of paper, you have to hold the camera roughly one foot away from the document and photograph it. Dance said it is difficult to capture smaller documents--a business card, for example--because the lenses in most phones don't focus well at closer distances.

Once an image is captured, you can fix blurriness and convert it to black and white. Next, you might need to adjust contrast and eliminate shadows or reflections caused by certain types of papers or document surfaces.

Finally, the image is compressed using a format known as Fax Group 4, or G4. An image that started as 200 kilobytes in size, for example, could be squeezed down to 20 kilobytes. Dance said that with such compression, a phone could store about 10-page images in the space that it would take to store one digital photo.

Xerox believes that the technology will be useful for just about anyone with a job that requires research. The theory is that someone attending a trade show or conference, for example, could capture and store pertinent documents in their cell phone.

Dance reasoned that most people are unlikely to want to view those images on the tiny screen and will instead transfer them to a computer, where they could be converted into editable text using optical character recognition software, which is often included

with desktop scanners. Others might want to send a document image as an MMS message to a business associate or family member.

Paul Withington, a manager at research firm IDC who has seen the technology in use, envisions both personal and business applications, especially in professions still dependent on paper. An architect visiting a construction site, for example, could jot notes on a blueprint, photograph them and send the image to colleagues as an e-mail attachment or directly to a fax machine. An insurance agent could document a contract in the field and download it later to a computer for archiving.

"To my mind, any mobile professional who spends a lot of time on the road would have an application," Withington said.

"It's one of those products that doesn't need a critical mass of users to become useful," he added. "That's because the image is independent of any particular phone or software application."

Xerox researchers are also working on complementary technology for cataloging these and other digital images. Although it's part of a different research project that hasn't come to fruition, the technology will sort through and group images using histograms, which chart the pixels associated with a particular part of a digital photograph. In some instances, text descriptions will be tied to these histograms.

One possible use might be field research: A student could take a picture of an object or animal and then check the compressed image against a search engine for more information about its identity.

The Xerox mobile document imaging projects were actually born a half dozen years ago as an offshoot of work the company's scientists were doing with videoconferencing cameras. Several factors made it difficult to apply the technology to mobile applications, including the amount of memory available in cellular phones. The most serious limitation was the resolution of available digital cameras.

Analysts believe, however, that this will be a breakthrough year. Alex Slawsby, senior analyst for mobile devices at IDC, estimated that roughly 89 million mobile phones with cameras will be sold this year in the United States. About 40 percent will have a resolution of 1 megapixel or greater, he said.

"The Xerox technology will actually be important in coming up with solutions that really utilize camera phones," he said.

Dance has been using the software on the job to capture brainstorming notes from whiteboards. He also found himself reaching for his phone to photograph notices and schedules on the bulletin boards at his son's school, which he promptly e-mailed to his wife to check against their master calendar, and to make a copy of a sales proposal drafted in his office.