Scanning a book manually, page by page, is a slow, mind-numbing task. Google has had some ideas on how to speed up the process, but apparently these methods are still limited by how fast human hands can manipulate a book's pages before an image-capturing system.
Google, meet Masatoshi Ishikawa, a professor at the University of Tokyo. Ishikawa is well known in robotics circles for his Matrix bullet time-style amazing demos—like a robot hand that can catch objects in midair with superhuman speed. How does it work? He built a “Super Vision Chip” (that's what he calls it) that can “see” events too fast for the eye.
Ishikawa and his colleagues are already working on several applications—including a microscope that can track individual bacteria and a video game motion-capture system for gesture playing. Late last year when I visited the lab, they showed me their latest creation: a superfast book scanner.
The system, developed by lab members Takashi Nakashima and Yoshihiro Watanabe, lets you scan a book by rapidly flipping its pages in front of a high-speed camera. They call this method book flipping scanning. They told me they can digitize a 200-page book in one minute, and hope to make that even faster.
The camera operates at 500 frames per second, with a resolution of 1280 by 1024 pixels. For each frame, the system alternates between two capture modes. First it shines regular light on the page and captures text and images. Then a laser device projects lines on the page and the camera captures that as well.
The scanned pages are curved and distorted, but the researchers found a way to fix that. The laser pattern allows the system to obtain a page's three-dimensional deformation using active stereo methods. So they wrote software that builds a 3D model of the page and reconstructs it into a regular, flat shape.
The system is currently a prototype that occupies an entire lab bench. But in the future, they hope to simplify and miniaturize it for integration into portable devices like a smartphone. So one day you might be able to flip the pages of a book in front of your iPhone and get a digitized version in seconds.
True, it might not be a perfect, high-resolution copy of the book. The scanning process might skip pages and, well, your fingers might appear in the images. And that's not to mention all the copyright questions.
In fact, Watanabe told me he was particularly interested in scanning manga comics. Imagine, he said, if all of Japan's vast manga archives, at libraries, homes, and elsewhere, could be rapidly scanned and shared among manga fans around the world. That'd be nice. Alas, when he contacted one publisher, they didn't like his idea and forbade him from using their books for testing the scanning device. Watanabe currently uses a mock book he made himself.
Erico Guizzo is the Director of Digital Innovation at IEEE Spectrum, and cofounder of the IEEE Robots Guide, an award-winning interactive site about robotics. He oversees the operation, integration, and new feature development for all digital properties and platforms, including the Spectrum website, newsletters, CMS, editorial workflow systems, and analytics and AI tools. An IEEE Member, he is an electrical engineer by training and has a master’s degree in science writing from MIT.