Visit to Synapse

October 4th, 2006 by Hugh

SANY0019Adam has posted an email from Brian (pictured left), an electrical engineer at Synapse, the consultants working for Exbiblio on its first product, the oPen (pocket scanner). Adam mentions hitting some “challenges” . Over here in England, we still call those “problems”, but you can get a sharp rebuke for uttering that word around Exbiblio.

Exbiblio, once again, is to be commended on its openness – but on this occasion, Synapse deserves credit too. As it happens, I was planning to write an account of my visit to Synapse.

Synapse is based in a former tram depot in a suburb of Seattle. Immediately I walk in, I get a different feel from Exbiblio – it’s open-plan, chatty, but business-like. The depot makes me think of the Google Garage. It has some of the make-shift romance of a start-up, though Synapse was founded in 2001 and employs around 40 people. Exbiblio, as I have mentioned before, is in the center of town, and has a bookish, intellectual feel, with the workers dispersed in offices along corridors, where they beaver feverishly away at their projects.

On its website, Synapse says it does technology- intensive product development. Since June, it has been working with Exbiblio to develop the oPen. Its other clients come from all over the world and include Microsoft, Samsung, Philips, Intel, Logitech, General Electric – well you name it.

SANY0026The five-strong engineering team working on the oPen is managed by Dave Zucker (holding the notepad in the picture). You will often see Dave and other Synapse people around Exbiblio. Exbiblio’s Ian MacDuff (in the middle of the picture) is often at Synapse. It all seems very well integrated. They seem like a happy team, though I hope Ian won’t mind me saying that he looks a little stressed now that the project is behind its ambitious schedule.

I’ve heard Dave say a couple of times that the Synapse way is to “fail early, and fail often” – in other words to go all out for rapid development of prototypes, see what works, what doesn’t, and then quickly do another one, and then, if necessary, another one.

That is what has NOT happened with the oPen. Dave told me:

“We had said at the beginning that this was a two month project.”

I interject, “Was that possible?”

“It was possible. But Martin and I had discussions along the way where we made conscious decisions to push out the schedule in return for something – either we learned more, or got a design that we liked better. When you shoot for a prototype in two months, you definitely are going to make some compromises. You certainly couldn’t design something for production that was exactly for final version in two months.”

And so the deadline slipped, partly as a trade-off for more features and knowledge, and partly just because it slipped a bit.

The first prototype – videoed last week – is about one and a half times bigger than the desired size of the final version (this was planned). The idea of this prototype is to learn about memory, processor, and battery-life requirements. The engineers are also looking for ways to cut the size down.

Falstaff is Alive!Dave told me about one of the problems – er, challenges – already uncovered. When the first circuit boards came back from the factory they noticed some funny behaviour. Some diagnostics showed that two pins on the layout had been connected by a mistake in the design. It sounded as if this could be fixed quite easily.

I don’t really understand all the technicalities of Brian’s email but it doesn’t sound like the end of the world to me. I’m sure these glitches can be put right. But as we used to say back in my school days, Tempus Fugit.

It would have been nice to have a perfect prototype first time, but I think we all live in the real world and realise that “right first time” would require a lot of good fortune. It’s not really what Synapse promise (“Fail early and fail often”).

Tactless as ever, I asked Dave who pays for any delays. The answer is Exbiblio.

Design Study (mp3 Players)

September 22nd, 2006 by Adam

Here are some of the mp3 devices that the design team looked at before working on the Exbiblio scanning pen:

MP3 Players 1 MP3 Players 2 MP3 Players 3

What’s the Exbiblio oPen for?

September 20th, 2006 by Hugh

I’ve been a little quiet on the blog while I’ve been here at the Exbiblio office. I can report that I’m collecting lots of material to write up later. I’ve also been helping Ariel with a big rewrite of the copy on the Exbiblio website. I’m looking for examples of uses for Exbiblio’s first product, the oPen, which is due out next Spring.

Let me recap. Despite its name, the oPen is not really a pen at all. We hope to give you some pictures soon. It’s a sleek and flat little rectangle that will easily slip into a shirt pocket. It’s a text scanner with big aspirations. Let me numerate a few. I would be glad for more examples.

  • If it lives up to its promise, the oPen will be the most compact and reliable text scanner to date. So if you are reading a book, it will be no trouble to highlight a paragraph and save it. There’s no need to deface your book with a note or underline, or turn the corner of the page, or stick a post-it note inside. You’ve captured the text and can keep it on your computer. This is its most simple function. It’s a little underrated in the great Exibiblio “vision” but for my money, this is its most easy-to-understand and useful function.
  • If you want to add a few thoughts about what you just read, you can mutter them into the oPen. It save the sound file linked to the quotation you have chosen.
  • If the book you are reading is out of copyright, there’s a good chance that a digital copy of it exists on the web somewhere. Once your quotation is saved on your computer, the Exbiblio system will find the context for you. You will be able to expand your quotation to look at the whole page, chapter, or book. If you know that a digital copy exists, all you have to do is scan a few words because the Exbiblio system will find the rest for you.
  • Once you have a collection of quotations on your computer, you can search them, tag them, and sift them – do all the things that you like to do on computers.
  • You can, of course, share your quotations by emailing them and blogging them.
  • The Exbiblio system will be great for cross-referencing. Suppose you are reading a biography of a British Prime Minister that quotes a few lines of a famous speech, “We shall fight them on the beaches.” The Exbiblio system will find the rest of that speech for you. Similarly, citations of other reference books and sources can lead you to the original text. There’s no need for a researcher keep going back to the library to look up every cross-reference.
  • It will also work as a bar code scanner – so you can can catalogue your book or cd collection, or if you work in business you can use it to keep track of inventory.
  • If you are reading a poster or a notice on a wall, the Exbiblio pen could lead you to more information on the web about an event – see MyTago and Smartpox

These are just a few possible uses. I’m starting to think that I would be happy to fork out a few quid (I’m English) for one of these. Let your imagination take free reign. I’d be glad to have any more examples.

Mytago and Smartpox

September 15th, 2006 by Hugh


“Use Mytago and convert your phone into a magic bookmarking and tagging tool. Use bookmarks from the offline world for online sharing and exploring. Connect your offline and online worlds.”

Mytago is a piece of software that you can load onto one of the new smartphones that are becoming “devices for life.” It makes use of the inbuilt camera to scan text, pictures and symbols. I find it hard to understand how the text part fits in (perhaps somebody can enlighten me), but the “tag” idea is straightforward enough:

“During the day, you see a Mytago tag on a poster of an event of your interest. You scan it by taking a snapshot with your mobile phone camera as a bookmark for the event. Later at home, you transfer the tag to your laptop and upload it to and get all the details about the event.”

smartpoxAnother similar idea comes from the oddly but memorably named Smartpox. (I suppose they are hoping that their name will go viral). The Smartpox code is a square barcode that you can print in the real world of posters and newspapers. Suppose you are a band promoting a single. Users point their mobile phone camera at your Smartpox and hear a sample of your music.

Mashable makes an important point:

“The concept makes a lot of sense, although it isn’t exactly new. In fact, all these systems suffer from a serious chicken and egg problem: there’s no point in creating a code unless a decent number of people have the reader, and there’s no point in getting the reader unless there are plenty of codes around. So while Smartpox is a forward-looking idea, I don’t see it taking off in a big way.”

But despite the skepticsm, Japan provides an example that shows that this sort of thing can take off. QR Codes can now be accessed via camera phones. According to the Wikipedia, they are cropping up frequently in Japanese magazine advertisements and on business cards. You can even find them on the wrappers of Japanese McDonald’s burgers.

Exbiblio is clearly operating in the same space – but it’s ingeniously using text as the unique identifier. I see this as a huge advantage because you don’t have to create special barcodes, and any line of text is potentially a hyperlink. The weakness, in my view, is that you have to buy a scanner pen, and then remember to take it with you when you go out. This is quite a big egg for the chicken to lay. (I remind readers here that I’m an outside blogger, and I’ve been asked recently to give a few more of my own opinions). It seems to me that software that can be loaded onto camera phones is a fast expanding business model. I mentioned recently that you can use the video camera in the latest Nokia to analyse your golf swing. This is the sort of thing that is really taking off now.

Finally, my thanks to the skeptical Dead 2.0 where I read about these phone-scanners. I leave you with his thoughts on barcodes – and I think it’s fair to say that Exbiblio is addressing these issues:

“I’d rather see one of these company build a real-time scanner than can pick up the URL or email address off something printed than go through this rigmarole. Oh, one last thing, to ensure them the proper place in Web 2.0 land, they added in social networking features as well. Cuz there ain’t nothing more fun than having friends share UPC codes with each other.”

It’s Alive!!!

August 31st, 2006 by Adam

Falstaff is Alive!

But, no memory yet…

Falstaff Assembly

August 28th, 2006 by Adam

Brian Piquette (Synapse) and Ian MacDuff (Exbiblio) of our hardware team have provided the following photos of the bits and pieces of Falstaff coming together. Thanks guys!

Sensor Board: CMOS Image Sensor and Illumination LEDs.

This is the image sensor PCB. This PCB holds the CMOS sensor and the white illumination LEDs. It sits in the enclosure perpendicular to the long axis of the device, which points the sensor out the front of the unit.

Falstaff Assembly

Sensor Board with Lens Holder

The image below shows the sensor PCB with the milled plastic lens holder. The lens will screw into this plastic frame.

Falstaff Assembly

Sensor PCB mated with other PCBs in enclosure.

The PCB visible behind the Sensor PCB si the Main PCB. The Main PCB contains the processing core of the Falstaff unit. It has the ARM9 Processor, Flash and SDRAM.

Falstaff Assembly

Button PCB and Main PCB

The Button PCB (top) has the power supply, user interface (buttons and LEDs) and the interface between the sensor board and the main board.

Falstaff Assembly

Green Design

August 21st, 2006 by Team Member

Hardware LabAt Exbiblio we take responsibility for the things we make and do, and strive to leave beauty in our wake. This means our products should be beneficial to our users, not harmful to them, and likewise our products should not be harmful to the environment or the people manufacturing them.

The main aspects of an electronic device like Exbiblio’s oPen scanner that would cause environmental impact are the circuit board, the components on the circuit board (chips, resistors, capacitors, etc.), the battery, the case, and the packaging. Transportation is also a factor, but should be smaller than the others, and energy usage during customer usage should be very small compared to these manufacturing impacts, so we’re concentrating on them. So far, the green design considerations for are mostly going smoothly. This is a brief summary, more detail on each aspect will appear in the future.


Back to School

August 18th, 2006 by Hugh

The Staten Island Advance has some advice on what to buy for the coming new school year. Along side advanced index cards and a pillow that connects to your iPod, it mentions a clutch of smart pens.

  • Leapfrog Fly Pentop Computer: No ordinary ball-point, this pen actually has a computer inside it. An optical scanner reads everything you write and can perform many functions. It can solve math problems, translate English words into another language, remind you of your daily schedule, and if you draw a piano, Leapfrog will let you play it. Circuit City, $99.99.
  • Wizcom SuperPen Professional Handheld Scanner and Dictionary: Use your pen scanner as you read and study, scanning important information into the pen. Then later download it onto your computer to create study guides. It can store up to 1,000 pages of text. The pen also has built-in dictionaries and a thesaurus. The scanner can also turn text into speech. Staples, $199.99
  • Logitech Digital Pen is an alternative to taking a laptop to class. The Logitech digital pen is used in conjunction with “smart paper” which was developed to interact with the pen. The pen records handwriting and sketches, and then will convert notes into computer text, storing up to 40 pages at a time. It looks like a regular pen and lasts eight hours before needing to be recharged. From, $134.95.

A Scanner Darkly

August 18th, 2006 by Hugh

Keanu ReevesHere’s a movie that Exbiblio folk should go and see – A Scanner Darkly
– staring an animated Keanu Reeves and told in the style of a “graphic novel” come to life. The critics describe it as “difficult” but that’s never been a word to put Exbiblio people off. The scanner in question sees into the heart and mind. Now there’s a challenge for the scanner pen mark II.

The cross-over technology with which the film was made might be of interest too. The Scotsman reports:

Scanner was shot as a live-action movie and then fed into a computer, whereupon artists digitally traced over some frames by hand, using an electronic pen tablet.

The lines between traditional and digital media are getting more blurred all the time.

Hardware Demo at Company Lunch

August 2nd, 2006 by Adam

Ian 400
Dsc02420 400