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My Favorite Macworld Product: The IRISPen

by Adam Goldstein
07/19/2005

Despite a lighter vendor turnout than last year at Macworld Boston, there were still some bright spots. Harmon Kardon introduced a neat new car-based controller for the iPod, which I'd be absolutely dying to own if I, indeed, had a car. Similarly, Software MacKiev's 3D Weather Globe & Atlas software, while not brand-new, blew me away nonetheless. The swooping views of the planet made me feel like I was flying around in the Space Shuttle, or at least a decent Hollywood imitation of it.

Of all the products, however, the one that impressed me the most was an unassuming product called the IRISPen from a company called I.R.I.S. They're the guys that make the OCR (Optical Character Recognition) software that comes with HP scanners and multi-function devices—the software that turns scanned text into an actual text file on your hard drive.

For most people, OCR software works like this: you put a document (say, a newspaper clipping) in your scanner, scan it into your Mac, run the scanned file through the OCR software, and end up with a text file that's somewhere between 95 and 100 percent true to the original text. It's the software answer to hiring a full-time secretary to retype old government forms or snail-mail correspondence.

As you could probably guess, though, OCR is the sort of geeky technology that you talk about only with people who are either input-device manufacturers or computer science majors. That’s mostly because OCR is so darned clerical; like the process of checking your voicemail, it’s something that you do because you have to, not because you want to.

But that may be about to change. The IRISPen, a fun highlighter-like device that turns lines of printed matter into text on your screen, is truly a wonder of technology. You use it just like you would a normal highlighter, dragging it over lines of text that you think are important. What you're left with, though, is completely different: a digital text copy of whatever's on the physical page.

How it Works

The IRISPen is a regular USB input device, like a keyboard or mouse. It's plug-and-play, too, so you don't have to install any driver software to make it work. And the best part: it enters text straight into whatever program is active at the moment, whether it be TextEdit, Microsoft Word, or an outlining program like OmniOutliner. You just sit there, scanning away, as the text appears on your screen.

The IRISPen isn't much bigger than a highlighter, but it's far more powerful The IRISPen isn't much bigger than a highlighter, but it's far more powerful

Furthermore, the IRISPen does a great job of converting text even if you forget to keep the device totally straight. (The manufacturer claims that the IRISPen can scan 1000 characters per second, too; that's an impressive statistic, considering that you would need an arm as fast as a major league pitcher's to scan text that quickly.) In any case, you can move the IRISPen across a page the same way you'd move a highlighter, and the IRISPen will keep up.

Of course, such devices have been around in various incarnations for several years. Some have even included built-in memory, so you can scan while you're away from your Mac and transfer the scanned text when you get back. That feature, unfortunately, is not available in the IRISPen.

What sets the IRISPen apart, though, is its accuracy (in my brief testing, nearly 100 percent) and its price ($130 online for the "express" version I saw). At that price, it could start making sense for students and schools.

For example, one of the persistent annoyances of reading used textbooks is that students are stuck reading already highlighted pages. If several students before have used the textbook (each of whom used a different color of highlighter) the problem is even worse: the pages are a rainbow-colored hodgepodge of highlighted and unhighlighted lines, with no way of telling one person's important markings from another's. Never mind that the pages look ugly; they're just plain hard to read.

Now imagine if every student used an IRISPen—or a product like it—rather than a real highlighter. When the school year finished, each student could pass the textbook on to the next in perfectly pristine condition, with nary a fluorescent marking in sight. More importantly, the IRISPen-toting student would have a digital copy of the textbook's important chunks stored forever on his or her computer.

That got me thinking: what could I, a Mac nerd, do if I had all the important parts of my textbook readings in digital form?

Ideas

The first idea that came to mind was creating condensed review sheets. As it is now, reviewing for high school tests is a tedious affair: either rereading pages and pages of material (perhaps highlighted, perhaps not), or reading chicken-scratch notes that were scribbled in the margins. With an IRISPen, if I scanned the text the first time around, rather than highlighting it, I'd have a review sheet all but premade for me when test time comes around.

But that's just scratching the surface. Instead of scanning textbook sections into Microsoft Word, what if I scanned them into, say, SubEthaEdit, and shared my highlighted notes with my friends? It would be a completely collaborative way of seeing the important sections. We could even diff the results to agree on the really important parts.

Of course, the iPod notes feature would come in handy here too. On the bus ride to school, I could see all the sections I'd scanned the previous night right on my iPod's screen, in anticipation of a class discussion.

The IRISPen could even render research note cards obsolete. When looking up facts in a library, I could just bring a laptop and IRISPen, and then scan a book's title page, current page number, and any noteworthy information on the page. After doing that for each important fact, I'd have a complete list of sources, page numbers, and research facts that I could refer to while writing a research paper—or, since it's all stored as text anyway, to just copy and paste for use as direct quotes. Making bibliographies would be a cinch, too, with a program like ReferenceWorker on the same machine as an IRISPen.

In the adult world, I'd imagine that a busy executive could have a secretary scan only the important sections of official documents with an IRISPen, and then run the scanned text through a program like TextToMP3 so the executive could listen to the scanned sections on the commute to work.

On that subject, the "executive" ($200) version of the IRISPen has some neat features of its own. For one, it functions as a barcode scanner, which, if nothing else, offers a cool way to figure out what the UPCs on the backs of cereal boxes say. The manufacturer also claims that the IRISPen Executive can scan handwriting and convert it to text (of course, that depends on the legibility of your handwriting). And if you're scanning documents with color backgrounds, the IRISPen Executive also offers some more sophisticated manual controls to ensure a more precise scan.

Final Thoughts

Now, sure, it would be cooler if the IRISPen had some built-in memory, so you could "highlight" several pages of information before plugging it into your computer and synchronizing. It would be nice, too, if the IRISPen had a port for plugging into a PDA, so you wouldn't have to lug your entire laptop wherever you were scanning.

But barring those nits, if you're a student who's not lucky enough to live in an all digital-textbook school district like this one in Tucson, the IRISPen may well be the next best thing; it's accurate, inexpensive, and works with Macs.

Now, if only all my teachers were the same way...

Adam Goldstein is the author of AppleScript: The Missing Manual and also a full-time student.


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