Guest Post: Do Androids dream of handwriting recognition

by Katia Shabanova, PR director with Paragon Software Group

Engineers have been trying for decades to teach computers to recognise handwritten text. Only recently have leading software companies made significant progress teaching smartphones and tablets to adequately recognise handwriting. When Samsung launched its Galaxy Note 10.1 tablet, one of the key competitive advantages of the device cited by the manufacturer was its S Pen recognition system – created in partnership with Wacom. In the latest devices, the S Pen allows the transmission of up to 1,024 degrees of clicking on the screen – achieving essentially the same precise screen recognition as if writing with an actual pen and paper.But why, in 20 years of mobile, is this groundbreaking handwriting recognition feature just now being introduced?

The first attempts to teach computers to understand handwritten text began in the Soviet Union in the 1960s.

At the time, the space industry was driving the development of handwriting recognition, explained the head of Paragon Software’s mobile development division, Alexander Zudin, as a way to avoid sending pencils and paper into space to cut down on costs.

Commercial use of handwriting recognition had not been identified at the time, but by the mid-1990s, with the appearance of the first PDAs [Personal Digital Assistants], keen interest was shown by various device manufacturers.

Some form of handwriting recognition was installed on all the early PDA devices from Palm, Apple (which entered the market with the Newton) and other manufacturers working under the first version of Windows Mobile.

Interestingly, handwriting applications did not become the ‘killer apps’ programmers thought they would be, simply because their development didn’t meet consumer expectations.

“Teaching PDAs every letter and number written by hand was too complicated,” says Zudin, “And the recognition accuracy was very low.”

However, with increased precision in the technology, handwriting recognition has gained traction. The most popular devices and platforms all have handwriting recognition services available, especially as mobile applications.

In the Apple iTunes App Store, a number of programs can be found that allow graphical information to be drawn on the screen and saved as pictures.

Some programs even have the ability to recognise handwriting – including the popular note-taking app Evernote, which not only supports handwritten text notes, but also audio, speech-to-text and the ability to scan documents. Alll this with cloud archiving capabilities.

Handwriting apps aren’t just for iOS. In Google Play there are a number of applications based on handwriting recognition technology. Handwriting Dato and HandwriteNote Free, for example, are designed to store and catalogue handwritten notes.

‘More ‘advanced’ applications, such as MyScript Calculator, are designed for writing complex mathematical calculations by hand.

It is not only gadget manufacturers and their software developers that have shown interest in handwriting recognition, but also other industry players.

The German automotive manufacturer Audi equipped their 2011 A8 and A6 models with on-board computers that support handwriting functions capable of entering information into the multi media Interface, which includes the car’s media player and navigation system.

Audi’s rationale was that some users find it easier to manually enter information rather than pressing buttons.

At Paragon Software, we have seen increased awareness from manufacturers looking to pre-integrate handwriting recognition into personal computing devices and electronics of all types.

PenReader, utilised in place of the default keyboard in any application, can be readily configured to integrate completely with any operating system.

This is why our company recently released the PenReader API as part of a software development kit aimed specifically at device manufacturers.

Google, also recognising the attraction of alternate input methods, launched its Google Handwrite feature in July 2012 to facilitate handwritten Google web searches on touchscreen smartphones and tablets.

Google Handwrite looks to be a natural enemy of anti-keyboard pecking input apps like Swype, Swiftkey or PenReader, and even the company’s own Google Voice Search speech recognition input method.

Writing English characters by hand is still viewed as more cumbersome than typing.

The path of adaptation seems to be to satisfy the ability to input information quickly – whether by typing with your fingers or through voice recognition. There has been significant progress in these areas, with pre-integrated alternate input methods in high demand.

But, for whatever reason, handwriting recognition still remains a niche.

Author biog

Katia Shabanova is director of public relations at Paragon Software Group where she handles editorial exposure for the company’s mobility and disk utilities divisions. Ms Shabanova studied linguistics at Moscow StateLinguistic University and University of Texas at Austin; English and German philology at Santa Clara University, California; and earned Master of Arts degrees in English and German Philology at Georg-August University of Göttingen, Germany. You may email her as kshabanova AT paragon-software DOT com.

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