Share on Facebook Tweet on Twitter Share on LinkedIn Share by email
Improving on the Cocktail Napkin
April 15, 2000 12:00 AM PT

Lyndsay Williams of Microsoft Research's Cambridge UK lab is the inventor of the Smartquill, a pen that can remember the words that it is used to write, and then transform them into computer text.

The idea that "it would be neat to put all of a handheld-PDA type computer in a pen," came to the inventor in her sleep and woke her up at four in the morning one day in March, 1997.

The technology that makes it work is the accelerometer, a device for measuring motion. Williams had seen them a few years before, used as sensors for deploying airbags in a car crash. Her inspiration was that a tiny accelerometer in a pen could be used to detect the stops and starts, arcs and loops of handwriting, and transmit this information to a small microprocessor that would make sense of it as text.

Williams also saw that movement detection could be used to make a small virtual screen appear much larger by moving it, just as a woman uses a small hand mirror in a compact to see different parts of her face. By tilting the pen, the user can choose applications and scroll through lists without using scroll buttons.

The pen is slightly larger than an ordinary fountain pen, with a screen on the barrel. If there's no cocktail napkin handy, never fear: it can detect and remember handwriting on the air. The user trains the pen to recognize a particular handwriting style - no matter how messy it is, as long as it is consistent, the pen can recognize it. The pen is then plugged into an "inkwell" that transmits the text to a PC or handheld or to a mobile telephone to be sent as email.

Williams designed and built the prototype Thomas Edison-style in her garage at home in Bedfordshire. ''I wanted the device to balance well in the hand and also to be symmetrical,� she says, �so that either left-handers like me or right handers could use the pen." The tilt sensor determines which hand is holding the device, and adjusts the writing sensor and the display accordingly.

Other features that might be added to the Smartquill include speech recognition and two-way wireless communication with other computing devices. There is no reason why the device could not be taught to read in Cyrillic, Arabic and Chinese, or to double as a pocket calculator. The smaller processors and memory units become, the smarter Smartquill can be.

Encouraged by Nigel Ballard, a leading consultant to the mobile computer industry, Williams took her prototype to the British Telecommunications Research Lab, where she was promptly hired and given money and institutional support for her project. BT software engineers Ben Milner and Paul Tomlinson wrote the handwriting recognition program for the PC. Williams is the inventor of record on the international patent, and BT owns the patent rights. Williams left BT for Microsoft Research in November, 1998, and is continuing her research on the use of accelerometers in computing devices.

Williams is convinced the Smartquill could be brought to market by next year at a reasonable price of about $200, about the same as a high-end fountain pen. �It�s the pen for the new millennium,� she says. �All the computing power you need, right in your pocket.�