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Sweden has another major innovation to its name with the C-Pen. Hugh John tests a small piece of kit that looks set to earn itself a big reputation

When someone mentions Sweden, what do you immediately think of? Abba, Strindberg, Bjorn Borg, Volvo, Absolut VodkaI C Technologies?

Sweden is the third most ICT-intensive country in the world and in terms of GDP (gross domestic product) investment, the second largest. The LCD was a Swedish invention, and the next time that you're woken up on the bus by a mobile, there's a good chance that it'll be an Ericsson.

C Technologies is a small high-tech company, with close links to Lund University. Specialising in advanced information gathering, its first product, the C-Pen, is a powerful, highly sophisticated electronic highlightertext scanner. Weighing just 100 grams, it is even shaped like a highlighter, but with a curved grip at the business end which makes it more comfortable to use.

Here's the clever bit. The recessed head of the pen houses a tiny camera and as the device is stroked over a line of text (in either direction) up to 50 images a second are converted into computer-readable text (up to 3,000 pages of A4) and stored in its huge memory. This can then be transferred cordlessly to a PC by infra-red communication. The C-Pen's LCD screen allows up to four lines of text to be displayed and edited.

The optical recognition system is said to be more than 95 per cent accurate, and letters or numbers that have not been recognised can easily be altered by selecting another character and inserting it, or by simply drawing the appropriate letter (C-Pen can recognise its own movement over a surface). However, corrections are far simpler once the material is in a word processor on your PC.

Well that's the theory, but does it actually work? Yes, and infra-red communication with an up-to-date PC is relatively straightforward. IR support and C-Pen software are installed from the accompanying CD-Rom which also includes a demonstration program. To transfer data, just point the C-Pen at the IR port of your computer and run the PC software. Addresses, phone numbers and e-mail addresses captured with C-Pen can be uploaded and synchronised with Microsoft Outlook.

The software allows various settings including thin fonts (Courier, for example) and font sizes of 7-18 points, and the pen works best when the text is bold, sans-serif and double spaced (avoid scanning underlined text).

Infra-red communication works well with newer computers, but can be a problem with older models. If your PC doesn't have a built-in IR port you can buy an external IR reader (it plugs into the serial port). The C-Pen is powered by a small rechargeable battery, allowing up to 14 days of normal use. And it is absolutely mobile and not reliant on a PC, unlike its rivals.

The operating system is simple and clear, and with only three buttons - a trigger to activate the digital highlighting, an onoff button, a spring-loaded wheel to select the various functions - it is easy to use for right-handers (left-handers should try it first).

The C-Pen has obvious potential for education, not least being savings in time and money. The initial outlay is likely to deter student users (teachers and researchers will be tempted) but it could be used, for instance, in a school library for research - it would certainly reduce photocopying expenses.

The ability to cut and paste also aids productivity as students working with large amounts of printed matter need only extract relevant information, not reams of photocopied pages which need further editing. In its first version C-Pen is a great example of useful technology from a small dynamic company and could find a niche in education. And watch out for the new C-Pen 200 (pound;149+VAT) for students.

C-Pen pound;249+VAT From Megapixels. Tel: 01425 674617 or from Peak Developments. Tel: 01489 796 979 (Extra batteries, cases and external IR ports can be obtained from both suppliers)

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