Florida lawyer Rick Georges, a self-described gadget guy, had what he calls a "eureka moment" about a year ago on a flight. "I was in a scrunchy little seat, and the jerk in front of me put his seat all the way back so I couldn't open my laptop completely," he says. Unable to work, Georges started leafing through articles in magazines and fiddling with his Treo. Suddenly he remembered a Web-based service he had read about, ScanR.com, which converts JPEG image files to electronic documents, such as PDFs or Word documents. He used the Treo to photograph an article he wanted to clip. When the plane landed he e-mailed the photographs from his phone to ScanR.com, which quickly e-mailed the images back as PDF attachments that could be searched, e-mailed to clients and colleagues, or filed away in his records. "I just thought, 'Wow. This is the future'."
ScanR.com, which launched in April 2006, is one of the leading entrants in an industry that's making use of the increasingly sophisticated cameras included in mobile phones. The idea is to use the device as a portable scanner that makes it easy to enter written information in computer-readable form. "Since the invention of computers, we've been trying to convert human-readable stuff to computer-readable stuff," says analyst Harvey Spencer. He estimates that about $30 billion is spent worldwide each year converting the written word to computer data. But with the quality of character-recognition software and cell-phone cameras steadily improving, mobile phones are being turned into data-entry devices.
Once data are captured on the handset, ScanR.com, rival Qipit.com and other firms can use high-powered computers to run high-powered optical-character-recognition (OCR) technology. At ScanR, racks of servers process the sent image, then another set of servers grabs all visible text, cleans it up and drops it into a PDF file. The process, which takes about 30 seconds, is totally automated, so "no humans ever see it," ScanR's Chris Dury says. If users want to edit the text within the image, they can go to ScanR's site and download it as a text file. ScanR, which offers the service free for up to five uses per month and charges $3 per month for unlimited use, says it has received e-mailed images from users in 200 countries and from 950 models of phones.
Other companies are working with mobile-phone providers to offer capture and image-translation software that would live directly on mobile phones. Moscow-based firm Abbyy makes software that already allows users to take photographs of business cards, which are then translated into data and automatically entered into the phone's address book, and can be synced with personal computers. Abbyy is working on other versions that would apply the same technology to bigger images like full-page articles, whiteboards or other documents, turning the images into edit-ready text directly on users' phones, without needing to send an image anywhere. And the latest version of Massachusetts-based Nuance's OmniPage OCR software allows users to apply the software to images taken with high-resolution cell-phone cameras.
By 2010, there will be a billion camera phones in the world, half of them with a resolution of two megapixels or more, according to the research firm International Data Group. Spencer believes that camera phones used as capture devices will eventually replace scanners, fax machines and photocopy machines. "Why microfilm? Why photocopy?" he asks. "You can extrapolate from there." Chris Strammiello of Nuance takes it a step further: he foresees consumers' turning their phones into translators by combining camera phones, text recognition and translation software. "You could take a picture of a menu in China and have that translated back to you so you know what to order," he says. Such a scenario could happen within the next five years, he says. "Anywhere you go, any piece of information you see, you can archive that, you can translate that. It's very powerful." Cutting back on paper and bulky equipment by making use of the devices that already live in our pockets would be powerful indeed.