Pen Computing Issue #6

August/September 1995

Windows Software Review


Unobtrusive, restrictionless, fast, accurate, and small handwriting recognizer

Competition in the as of yet small universe of handwriting recognition is fierce. More than half a dozen notable companies are pursuing the holy grail of handwriting recognition due to the potentially huge payoff should recognition finally live up to its promise. That promise, initially, was to bring the pen and paper metaphor into the computer age by letting people write onto a computer slate with an electronic pen. The written text would then be swiftly translated into ASCII text, thus obsoleting the static paperpad just as wordprocessors obsoleted the typewriter. Well, handwriting recognition turned out to be a thornier problem than anticipated and many of the original efforts ended in disappointment. Fortunately, the people who work in this field are not only brilliant, they are also tenacious and won't give up easily, and the industry, in general, hasn't stood still. What's happening is that three trends are converging to breathe new life into handwriting recognition, and perhaps more. These trends are: 1) the appearance of much more powerful pen hardware that can more handle the processing requirement of recognizers, 2) a general (and often substantial) improvement in recognition technology, and 3) a move away from across-the-board recognition towards using recognition for more specialized applications. One of these tenacious companies that's been advancing the state of the art in handwriting recognition is aptly named Advance Recognition Technologies (ART) which has offices in Tel Aviv, Israel and Menlo Park, California. When I was first invited to a demo by ART's sales and marketing veep Sol Gradman and R&D chief Eran Aharonson at last year's PCC/CES show in Chicago, I didn't know what to expect. When we left two hours later, both Tim Schmidt, one of the foremost handwriting recognition industry followers, and I were more than just impressed with ART's smARTwriter. The ART folks had told us their philosophy: a recognizer must be good enough so that users can walk up to it and start using it right away. yet, it should also improve with use. ART had looked at neural nets and other traditional approaches, and deemed them too slow or otherwise inappropriate. Instead, they came up with a process called dynamic feature elicitation, a technology derived from advanced signal processing algorithms originally developed for electronic military applications. ART also felt that in order to be successful, a recognizer must be completely unobtrusive, allowing the user to write without restrictions, boxes, lines, or input windows. The recognizer also had to be fast, so that it could run on mobile computers with lower power processors. Amazingly, smARTwriter fulfills all of these goals. You can start using the recognizer right away without any training and it will do quite well. Take the five to ten minute training session and recognition will soar. The recognition engine is small and very fast, actually small enough to fit into ROM. And since smARTwriter is not dictionary-based, it recognizes foreign letters and words as easily as English. It is basically a printed letter recognizer, though it is theoretically possible to teach it a cursive alphabet. smARTwriter comes with a demo program that shows off the recognizers capabilities. For example, writing can be recognized in visual (as written), logical (location-independent), and boxed mode. Logical allows for very rapid data entry in a small window, similar to Graffiti. Filtering increases recognition accuracy by only considering certain classes of symbols, such as numerals or caps. Error correction is quick and painless with a quick click on a pop-up window that provides the next most likely possibilities and access to a keyboard. Confidence level settings between 0 and 100 allow fine-tuning for particular applications. It's easy to see how smARTwriter can be optimized for all sorts of different recognition applications. And the company keeps improving the product. At deadline we were able to take the brandnew 2.0 version for a test drive. It offers several improvements over an an already impressive product. For example, there is a small floating palette that lets you communicate with smARTwriter in any Windows application and provides instant access to keyboard, user libraries, on-the-fly training, and recognizer fine-tuning. The bottomline is that ART's technology ranks right up there and anyone searching for the state of the art in recognition should look at it. Version 2.0 will also include smARType, a character module recognizer that accepts one-stroke pre-defined or user-defined characters. We didn't see this, but ART's speedy recognition engine and already available logical mode data entry option suggest that ART can do it, and do it well.
DOS, Windows, and GEOS versions of smARTwriter are currently available, and Windows 95 and Magic Cap versions are under development.

ART: 9574 Topanga Canyon Blvd. Chatsworth CA 91311 tel 818-678-3999