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Software to turn iPhones, Pres into virtual pens grabs award

Halting State style air-writing 'within months'

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An undergraduate engineering student in America has won an award for developmental software which allows accelerometer-equipped smartphones - for instance the renowned Jesus Mobe and new kid the Palm Pre - to be used as "pens" for writing or drawing on the air in front of a user. Text or images are generated within the phone and can then be sent as messages, kept as notes etc.

Sandip Agrawal, in his senior year at Duke University's Pratt school, was awarded the inaugural Hoffman + Krippner Award for Excellence in Student Engineering yesterday. The award was set up by German firm Hoffman + Krippner, and was presented at an expo in Chicago.

The software which won Agrawal the laurels is called "PhonePoint Pen", and he developed it in cooperation with grad student Ionut Constandache. It uses accelerometers in the phone - currently employed mainly for such tasks as switching automatically between portrait and landscape display - to trace characters or diagrams scribed by the user on thin air.

"The accelerometer converts the gestures to images, which can be sent to any e-mail address for future reference," says Constandache. "Also, say you're in a class and there is an interesting slide on the screen. We foresee being able to take a photo of the slide and write a quick note on it for future reference. The potential uses are practically limitless. That this prototype works validates the feasibility of such a pen."

Such an interface has long been speculated upon in science fiction, with hardware often miniaturised to wristwatch or ring size such that users could write on air - perhaps getting visual feedback via video specs, eye implants or contact lenses - using their fingertips. This is commonplace in Charles Stross' book Halting State, for instance.

The software also incorporates handwriting recognition, allowing the scribbled jottings of the user to be turned into text files. At present a writer must pause briefly between characters for this to work - joined-up writing will not be understood - but the student developers hope to fix this soon. Another to-be-solved snag is that everything must currently be writ large, in arm-waving style, as current phone accelerometers aren't sensitive enough for small gestures to register accurately.

But Agrawal and Constandache seem confident of sorting out the cursive-writing issue at least, and believe that as accelerometers become more common in mobile devices there'll be less need to brandish one's blower dementedly in public when writing one-handed.

"It is only a matter of time before we improve the performance of this application," Agrawal says. "We plan to further augment the pen with real-time feedback, character recognition and better support for drawing diagrams."

The developers believe that PhonePoint Pen will be available for download "within the next few months". They don't give details on platforms, free/paid etc. However, Agrawal and Constandache work within a group funded by Verizon and Nokia. ®

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