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Cool hands rule

Sweden is not only the country of solid, staid brands. It is also home to the coolest of the cool. Arthur Goldstuck speaks to a couple of the inventors at the cutting edge of cool.

Gunilla Alsio is an unlikely geek. For starters, she is 57 years old, which immediately disqualifies her from the ranks of the hip young programmers who led the IT revolution of the 1990s. Secondly, her speciality area is not in the hot arena of IT, but in the practical worlds of ergonomics and occupational therapy.

But that didn’t stop her from coming up with one of the coolest new inventions of the 21st century. It’s called the Senseboard, and it is a virtual keyboard in the fullest sense of the word. Unlike other virtual keyboards that use light to project a keyboard onto a surface, or even a plastic mat that replicates the keyboard, this one can be used against the back of an airplane seat, on a park bench or even in mid-air.

The secret is in how well the user can type ‚ you need to be a touch-typist, so that it does not matter if you can see a keyboard or not ‚ and in a device that is strapped over the fingers. The Senseboard device detects movement when fingers are pressed down, measures the movements, and determines the intended keystrokes or mouse movements. The information is then transferred to the computer where a standard word processor translates the signals into readable text.

‚We are pioneers in the development of full scale mobile text entry systems,‚ says Alsio with a characteristic mix of pride and understatement. ‚The first competitor people think of when they hear of it is speech recognition systems. But you can’t use speech in meetings to take notes. If it is in public, like in a plane, you can’t do business letters.

‚The second main competition is digital handwriting. That gives a message the personal touch, but you have to send it as an image so in most cases you can’t edit the text afterwards ‚ and you usually need special paper. The foldable keyboard is the third option, but you still need a flat surface for it ‚ you can’t do it in your lap or lying down on a couch.‚

The Senseboard, on the other hand, weighs a mere 100g, and you merely have to imagine your keyboard. Not only is it convenient and silent, but ergonomic tests have shown it to improve input speed by up to 70 percent in comparison with miniature keyboards. You decide, in your mind, the size of your keyboard, and the device adapts to the typing style it picks up from your hand movements.

Marketed by Senseboard Technologies, it is a masterful blend of inventiveness, entrepreneurship and good old-fashioned academic research. It started life as Alsio’s Masters thesis in ergonomics, which in turn was a result of her work as an occupational therapist and ergonomics consultant. No ivory towered academic, she had worked for seven years in a prison, providing occupational training to convicted drug abusers. This led her to rehabilitation work in various fields, and ultimately to establishing a rehabilitation centre at a Stockholm hospital, working with ergonomic problems.

Senseboard Technologies’ story is a classic tale of multidisciplinary ingenuity and a cool solution to a real-world problem. Ever since Sweden began evolving from an agrarian to an industrialised society in the 1800s, it has boasted a culture both entrepreneurial and technical.

Some would say that Anders Celsius invented the Kelvin system for measuring absolute temperature in the 18th century precisely so that the rest of the world could measure just how cool his country was, but it was really with Alfred Nobel’s invention of dynamite in 1867 that Sweden came to the industrial fore. Of course, Nobel was not content to stop there. The money he made from his invention enabled him to establish the Nobel Foundation, which today is the last word in rewarding excellence in all disciplines. And, according to the Invest in Sweden Agency’s Goran Eriksson, everyone wants to surpass the latest role model.

‚Sweden is a very equal society, so everyone thinks they can do the same as everybody else. When someone gets a lot of publicity in the press, there is a sense in Sweden of, if he can do it, I can do it ‚ he is no one special.‚

So everyone does not necessarily want to be the next Ake Lundqvist, the LM Ericsson visionary, or pioneers Osten Makitalo and Thomas Haug at Telia, the state telecoms provider, or Comviq/Tele2 founder Jan Stenbeck ‚ all household names in the development of wireless technology. They take their inspiration there, but what they really want to be is themselves, on the same level as the greats.

Take Christer Fahraeus, inventor of the C Pen, a pen-shaped scanner that can scan up to 3,000 pages of text and download it to a computer or send it by e-mail. Not satisfied with a spot in invention history or with taking C Technologies public, he came up with the Anoto Pen system, described as the first ‚intelligent pen‚ .

‚What is pen and paper?‚ he asks rhetorically. ‚It’s something with about five billion daily uses, so it’s the most used information technology on earth: it’s something that can produce, store and send. Why shouldn’t that also go digital?‚

Fahraeus has come up with a system that uses normal paper, to which you apply a normal-looking pen, except that it has a tiny camera mounted in its head.

‚The camera is actually an XY coordinate reader, and the paper is criss-crossed with near-invisible dots. The camera picks up which dots have been covered, and transmits information wirelessly back to a computer, or sends it via e-mail. The paper acts as the graphical user interface, and the only special thing about it is a tick box at the bottom which says e-mail or send.‚

The paper isn’t entirely standard, but it comes close.

‚Every kind of paper has something printed on it, even if it is just lines. So long as you are printing something on the paper, you may as well print dots. It doesn’t add anything to the cost of paper.‚

Fahraeus invokes an impressive list of Anoto partners ‚ from LM Ericsson to Mont Blanc to Gillette ‚ echoing the kind of cross-disciplinary expertise that has made Sweden the heartland of automotive computing, for example. The applications of the Anoto Pen run from note-taking applications to automated forms processing, regarded as ideal for improving the efficiency of administration at e-Government offices. Both government and enterprises in Japan are among the first customers.

It’s not foolproof technology, however. During a demonstration after an interview with Fahraeus, the pen did the unthinkable: it crashed, or at least it failed to transfer a page via fax to a Bluetooth-enabled laptop being used for the demo. But a quick pen-swop, and the fax made its appearance.

The trick now is to make it work in the marketplace. Anoto, like C Technologies based at the Ideon Research Park in Lund, also like C Technologies had yet to make a profit at the time of talking to Fahraeus. However a deal with Hitachi Maxell of Japan should have seen a new round of mass production starting in April this year, and a slowing-down of the flow of red ink.

Yes, even the coolest Swedish companies can run at a loss.

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