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High-tech photos give new meaning to 'talking pictures'

Italian start-up develops a technology that lets photos speak; concept apparently catches HP's eye. Images: Adding sound to pictures

Culture
If a picture is worth a thousand words, how valuable would it be if someone added a sound track?

Italian start-up Zanetti Studio aims to find out. The Milan, Italy-based company is preparing a new photo printer, called Speekysmart, that imprints a magnetic strip to the side of a piece of paper or photograph. The recordable tape, which the company named Speakpaper, can capture a few seconds of conversation or music recorded at the moment the photo was taken.

Though the company has been developing Speakpaper for several years, the Speekysmart printer is not yet on the market. Founder Giancarlo Zanetti is shopping for a hardware manufacturer.

photos with sound

"We are now negotiating with two printer companies--one of these is an Italian company, the other is a Japanese company," Zanetti told CNET News.com. The spellings may be inconsistent, but the Speekysmart printer, Speakpaper and the accompanying magnetic reader are all being marketed under an umbrella Speeky brand, he added.

Palo Alto, Calif.-based Hewlett-Packard apparently is also aware of Zanetti's connection between sound and vision.

An image that was produced by Zanetti's marketing agency in preparation for a presentation to HP leaked onto the Web two weeks ago on a Web site for the Telecom Italia Lab, the R&D branch of the Telecom Italia Group.

Consistent with the look and feel of an HP advertisement, the multicolored page design advertises for an "hq speekysmart 4001," with the name of the well-known company mimicked throughout the design via the use of an inverted "p" in the "hp" logo.

Zanetti's company showed a second version of the advertisement to CNET News.com. It has a similar layout, but with the Speeky logo replacing any that might have been mistaken for HP's.

Both mock-ups promote the experience of "your voice on the photo," and "the only printer to allow the combination of photos with verbal comments," and "more emotions in your memories."

"This image was produced by our marketing agency in preparation for a disclosure to Mr. Gerard Lamiero (HP's strategy and corporate development director of new business ventures), who was in touch with us from last September for a potential technology license," Zanetti said.

But HP spokesman David Berman said his company was not amused that the presentation so closely resembled an HP advertising campaign and said HP would ask Zanetti to remove the images from any public Web sites.

Incidentally, HP is also working to add sound to photos created on its printers. Howard Taub, vice president of imaging research at HP Labs, revealed the company's plans during a September press briefing, though it did not show a mock-up or physical sample.

"You can take your cell phone up to the photo and listen to the recording," Taub said. "It would let you know when and where the picture was taken and who the people are in the picture." "For example, your grandmother would appreciate a photo," Taub said. "But imagine how she would react if she could hear you say, 'Hi Grandma, I took some pictures of the kids. We love you.'"

Zanetti Studio first developed Speakpaper as a magnetic strip that can be rolled out alone like masking tape, Zanetti said. A mouselike handheld reader, also developed by the company, can record or replay the audio track. The user wipes the reader past the magnetic strip, as someone might swipe a credit card when making a purchase.

"We needed three years of research and trials on its mechanical and electronic parts" before developing the marketable version of the printer, Zanetti said.

Similar to HP's plan, Zanetti's vision is to modify the Speakpaper reader and Speekysmart printer technology for cell phones so people could read magnetic strips without carrying another device.

Currently, the Speakpaper reader can scan a magnetic strip as long as the side of an 8.5-inch by 11-inch paper, so it can read or record four to five seconds of audio, Zanetti's company said. A version that can extend the recording to 15 seconds is being tested. The goal is to get the magnetic strip to hold up to three minutes of recording time. The Speakpaper technology also adjusts to the speed that the reader is swiped and can stop itself or resume without altering the message, according to company documents.

In its marketing material, Zanetti Studio also advocates the reader as a tool for the blind and vision impaired.

Speeky magnetic tape, reader and printer technologies have seven international patents and two more pending, the company said.

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