Paperless Home

In my home I now have a "home computer", for a while in the kitchen, now in the living room. Of course I have had computers in my home since the 70s, but this one is different. It's an old cheap laptop I picked up, not powerful at all. What's different is how I use it.

I have connected a Visioneer sheetfed scanner to it. I can drop papers and business cards into it and it scans them. Then I drop them in a box. I have scans of all the receipets and other documents, but if for some reason I need the original I can see by date which ones were nearby and presumably find it quickly enough. A good idea might be to drop a coloured sheet in once a month.

This has inspired me to design a simple device which would be very cheap to build. It's a small sheetfed scanner like this one, which is the size of a 3-hole punch. It's battery powered so it can be stuck anywhere. It has no cables going into it, instead it has a memory card slot, such as compact flash.

When you scan, the data would just be written to the flash card. (Nicely this means the scans are fast.) A button or two on the scanner might set some basic options (like colour or gray, delete and rescan etc.) At most a small LCD panel would be all you get.

When the flash is full, you would take it to the computer, which would do all the real work. Scan and process the data. Convert grayscales to bitmaps at the right level as desired. OCR the text for searching and indexing. Detect orientation, tilt, business cards (by size) etc. all automatically.

And of course then let you view and organize your papers on the computer.

We've dreamed of a paperless office for some time but never gotten there (though we get a little closer all the time.) But can we get to a paperless home, or at least a lower-paper home? I find the paperwork and nitty-gritty of managing a home gets more frustrating with time and hope something can help it.

As noted, my design is extremely cheap. The scanner, a small controller and a flash interface is about all there is too it. Cheaper than the current scanners, which can be had well under $100. The flash card is the expensive part.The paperport software that comes with the Visioneer is OK, though it also could use some improvement. Ideas include detecting business cards from their size, and also allowing you to feed in multiple business cards at a time since the scanner is 11" wide.

Also useful would be automatic detection of the orientation of text, and better handling of errors, like noticing if I tried to scan the same thing twice.

Paperport uses a proprietary format, and the zoomed-in view doesn't allow you to name the documents. Changes like this are a no-brainer, though.

Of course I also get a lot of this by joining Paytrust.com, which receives many of my bills, scans them, converts them and lets me pay them. They have had a few bugs over the years, and their end-of-year CD has pointless encryption that ads no security and gets in the way, but overall it's one of the few internet services really worth paying for. The home scanner does the other half.

Other notes: A more expensive, double sided model would be nice. Flash is getting cheap, let the PC decide the other side was blank.

No need for much UI on the scanner. Instead, configure the scanner by writing choices to the flash card. The scanner can read them and know your preferences, even the time and date (to the minute) if you know to walk the card over to the scanner quickly.

Again, the goal is a very inexpensive design with minimal part count. Battery powered, you could have more than one. Of course, fancier scanners including flatbed and overhead digital camera are also possible.

Update in response to a question in the comments: Note that while OCR on random documents to convert them to text is hard, OCR for searching is much easier. You only have to understand some of the letters, and ideally when you don't, you can store, 'That was either "u" or "o" or "ii"' so that pattern matching can fit queries. Then you just show the documents that might match, including some non-matches, and let the user pick the real document they wanted. What you really want to do is sort the documents according to how likely it is they contain the words "phone bill", and let the human do the final pick.

Finally, a note of credit: I first saw somebody scanning personal documents with one of these when visiting Bob Frankston's house. Bob is always way ahead of the curve on gadgets.

So who's ready to build this?

Very interesting. If it worked well enough to depend on you'd soon be dumping hundreds of pages per month. Then to find anything you'd have to stop relying on browsing by date and have to use search. At this point you'd face the barrier of document recognition.

OCR is a generally reliable for text of reasonably good image quality (which is itself problematical for receipts, flyers, memos, and other personal documents). But recognizing genre and attaching meaning to recognized words both remain big challenges. It's an open and interesting question whether current-day OCR would provide enough indexing capability to make the whole thing worthwhile.

Also, I'd worry about the cost/scan-quality tradeoff, angering the user by choosing the wrong compression format (e.g. binarizing when greyscale was needed), and the storage vault.

Your idea may depend on having home file systems more robust than the average person's un-backed-up PC hard drive.

Check out Ricoh's eCabinet, which is an office unit for this purpose.

Check out www.djvuzone.org. Documents (including checks) can be scanned into djvu format preserving their metadata in the hidden text layer for searches.

Increasing amounts of information and paper are becomming a bigger and bigger problem in business and personal life.

The idea of immediatlely scanning paper you receive is a good one. But I have a habit of writing/scribbling ideas, todo's, plans on scrappaper sometimes with drawings. I wonder if recording on cheap music-casettes would be an alternative. You could also record your voice on PC if the PC is on and you are too lazy to type it in notepad..

Converting spoken text into written text is quite complex I think. However its not difficult to let computers speak out written text.

In my country they sometimes use a system where they let you answer questions over the telephone and afterwards the recorded conversation counts as a legal contract. Pitty they send a written resume/confirmation by post afterwards.

I guess this comment has more to do with Paytrust.
I read the FAQ on paytrust site - no doubt, they would do a great service by eliminating the paper bills that fill our mail boxes. The entire exercise of opening, filing, paying these bills is sickening. Paytrust is one great step towards paperless Home.
However I think and I have suggested to them that they should have an option that user pay ALL the bills on one user designated day of the month.
I would love to see all due payment dates reduced to one single date of the month. Lets say I want to set 10th of each month as due date for ALL the bills.
Say I get a notification by 6th of each month from paytrust about one single consolidated amount to be paid by 10th.
This way I just have to be concerned about one email notification from them.
If I relocate or go on vacation I am just concerned about one date.
I am not a user of Paytrust but would like to know how other feels about it.

PayTrust CD

I totally agree with your comment that PayTrust's "end-of-year CD has pointless encryption that ads no security and gets in the way", so I wrote a free tool to export the data on a PayTrust CD out to staight HTML files...

http://josh.com/PayTrustExport/index.htm

Once you've liberated your data (it is YOUR data), you can keep it on your hard disk, print it out, search it, load it into a spreadsheet, and know you will be able to access it for many years to come.

Now if we can just get PayTrust to fix a couple of very minor issues, the service would be perfect.

I am part of a paperless

I am part of a paperless payroll company (www.greenchx.com) All of our internal documents are scanned and stored online. The old paper files are then shredded and recycled. All of our outbound documents are via email or downloaded from our website by customers. Even documents that require signatures can now be signed digitally. So as someone who is constantly searching for new and more efficient methods of reducing or eliminating paper usage I can say without a doubt that going paperless is becoming more of a reality for small business owners.

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