By November 20, 2010

Oxford PaperShow review

papershow pen

The Oxford PaperShow is the most unusual device I’ve ever tested. It’s a digital-analogue crossover, a bridge between papers and computer screens, a digital tablet that uses paper and a Bluetooth pen that uses ink cartridges… If your livelihood depends on presentations, you will want one. But maybe not just yet.


When I opened the PaperShow starter kit box I realised I had no idea what do with what was there. A Bluetooth dongle. A pen. Spare cartridges. A paper pad. Printer paper.


A USB dongle with Bluetooth and storage and the PaperShow pen with magic ink and little scanner:


01 All what you need


I knew the pen was supposed to be digital, the paper pretty peculiar, and that the whole thing was supposed to connect with a computer via Bluetooth and that the idea was that what you write onto a sheet of paper would appear on the computer screen.

I just couldn’t fathom HOW exactly it would work. So I resorted to a desperate measure and read the manual. It paid off, for example, you need to disable your computer’s built-in Bluetooth radio.

Instructions are pretty clear and straightforward, though. The installation process, not so much. Some may be surprised that after Windows is done with downloading drivers, nothing happens. So you use your favourite way of navigating through your computer to get to the USB stick and click Install PC and then . something happens. The installation process commences but its painfully slow and at times it appears to stall. The status bar moves forward and back but, eventually, it finishes. Then you pair the pen with computer – you need to remove the cap to activate the pen – and you’re done.

This was the hard part. Now, the easy part.

The whole "thing" runs from the USB dongle (which is of a 256MB variety and can be used to store PaperShow documents) so you just locate the start.exe file and the magic happens. What you’re presented with is a simple workspace which can be viewed in a 4:3 or a 16:9 mode. It’s worth noting that the working area of the paper has a 4:3 ratio so a computer screen version will be stretched.

Same document in 4:3 and 16:9 ratio displayed in full screen mode:

 03 PaperShow Session 1 screenshot 4_3 02 PaperShow Session 1 screenshot 16_9

The magic

The pen can be used as any regular pen but hidden just next to the cartridge is a sensor that scans the movement of the cartridge ball across the paper. The sheet is littered by tiny little dots and divided to a grid. The grid makes navigating the paper easy and in the 4:3 regime you can work on a 1:1 scale.

Whatever you write, sketch, scribble on the paper will appear on the computer screen – or on the wall if you use a projector or on a big screen TV.

There are some basic settings to use and to play with and the great thing is that you can change them directly from the side-bar on the paper: colour of the digital pen (the analogue cartridge is monochromatic), the width of the pen, there are buttons for arrows, oblongs, Undo, Redo as well as multimedia buttons for controlling presentations.

There’s an eraser too but…it’s a digital eraser only. The cartridge’s ink is real so while you can erase the digital version of what was written, the paper version is there to stay.

I really liked the fact that you can use the paper’s side icons to navigate within the program which is handy as you don’t have to reach for a mouse or touchpad to apply changes, great if you’re a meter or two away impressing your audience.

Working area of a PaperShow print-out including an imported PDF file and "changes" I made. On the right, there’s a control panel that can be operated by the pen:

04 Document printed on a PaperShow sheet

I found the system perfectly accurate and very easy to use although you may need to modify your handwriting to make its digitalized version 100% intelligible.

The thing is the PaperShow pen is not pressure sensitive, so a line is a line is a line… up to a point. If your handwriting’s levels of pressure vary wildly, for example if your downward stroke in "y" progressively faints, it may be registered as "v" or something in between. The effect is most obvious when you write a lot of words very fast.

I got used to being more thorough with certain strokes pretty quickly but, frankly, this is a presentation tool which means a) you NEED to write properly so that your audience can see it properly, and b) chances are you will not be using the PaperShow to write huge chunks of texts fast.

Fooling around with the plain sheet for the first time (it’s a scan and the sheet is larger than A4, hence the clipping). Also notice the difference between my handwriting and what appears on the screen:

 05 PaperShow Session 1 scan 06 PaperShow Session 1 PDF export jpeg


Moving away from writing, you can also make a quick and rough sketch but artistic drawing is off limits due to lack of pressure sensitivity.

The whole experience is perfectly natural, chiefly due to the normal (albeit rather thick) pen and the WYSIWYG nature of the whole thing. There’s no need to take your eyes from the paper, perhaps just to make sure you really changed settings but even that comes to you very naturally.

There’s virtually no learning curve, it’s all very intuitive. If you keep your fingers from the eyes of the sensor, the PaperShow just works.



Import/Export barriers

Another clever thing with the PaperShow is ability to import PowerPoint files, JPF images and PDF documents. But here the PaperShow is like trying to travel beyond the Iron Curtain from an Eastern Block country. You could, but it didn’t mean you would be allowed to. You needed to have right "papers" and friends at high places.

In the PaperShow, you can import a PPT file and have multimedia fun with it… but your PowerPoint presentation must be in a landscape layout and you need to have Microsoft PowerPoint installed. And before you ask, nope, OpenOffice Impress and other alternatives don’t work.

I had more luck with PDF and JPG files which I managed to import successfully. But again, it all needs to be a landscape.

While most PowerPoint presentations I’ve seen were indeed in the landscape mode, most documents are portrait oriented, whether it’s a brochure or a UK Public Sector Finances tables.

I talked to PaperShow people and was told that importing portrait mode documents had only been implemented in the Teacher’s version, the Office variety will have to wait until next year. Fair enough, although I just don’t think this feature could be missing in a presentation software. I wasn’t impressed by a "solution" a PaperShow employee suggest – turning the display 90 degrees to portrait mode.


Blurred vision

Anyway, I created a PDF in the landscape mode and imported it to the PaperShow. Immediately, I was prompted to print it onto the PaperShow paper which I did. Mind, the print is not something you want to hang on the wall, the pen still needs to see the grid…

But it wasn’t the print quality that failed to impress me. First of all, the imported PDF file was rather blurry.

I created a PDF file on a Mac with OSX print to PDF file. It’s a webpage with OpenOffice language versions:

07 OpenOffice website PDF jpeg

I then imported it to the PaperShow, made few edits and exported it. The resulting file is noticeably blurry. You can also see the effect of using the Eraser tool – it erases also original document, not just your marks.

 08 OpenOffice website PDF from PaperShow jpeg


Second, there is no way to lock aspect ratio – the printed version will fit into the print area of the PaperShow paper, but the screen version can look . funny. If you use a full screen mode on a 16:9 or 16:10 ratio screen, your document will get stretched and there’s no way to return to the 4:3 format as you can with the plain PaperShow document.

Imported PDF file can be stretched in a very arbitrary manner but the tool to lock it in its original ratio is missing:

09 PaperShow screenshot Ratio Wrong narrow tall 10 PaperShow screenshot Ratio Wrong wide short

Anyway, once you print the document onto a PaperShow sheet, you can write notes, underline, scratch etc. You can also erase. But there’s a catch. Say you want to circle a particular word on the PDF file. But you circle the wrong one. You can redo that, directly from the PaperShow paper’s control panel. But if you use eraser, you erase the document itself (as displayed on one of the images above).

This may not be an issue when you realize your mistake straight away, but let’s say you spot it after you did 15 alterations…

Once you’re done, you can print the document onto a normal paper or export it as a PDF file. Which, again, is blurry to an extent I don’t consider presentable.

Another example of shoddy output quality. (I rotated the original PDF file before importing it to the PaperShow):

11 Public Sector Finances page 1 landscape PaperShow jpeg 12 Public Sector Finances page 1 original jpeg

Of course, if the input is blurry, the output will not be sharp. The reason is, PaperShow folks told me, is that the PaperShow actually "scans" the file rather than imports it. But surely it could do a better job with the virtual scan…


Fine line

To give the verdict on PaperShow is very difficult. On one hand, the concept is great and my first impressions were high on the OMG-this-is-great scale. I thought that PaperShow was a must-have tool for anyone whose livelihood depends on presentations.

But the more I worked with PaperShow and ventured out beyond plain scribblings on blank paper, the more it felt like an unfinished product. An occasional bug, such as that nothing happens when you click on Help Manual, wouldn’t bother me.

But some of the very basic features "presenters" have every right to expect to be fully functional weren’t there or were implemented poorly – landscape-only import, necessity to have Microsoft PowerPoint installed, substandard image quality import…

There are other things, too. If you exit the program, you automatically software-eject the thumb drive. Which means that to work again you need to unplug it and then plug it back again. Technical support’s online diagnostic mode only works on MS Internet Explorer and requires DirectX.

When you purchase the drive, it’s Mac and PC compatible. But once you use it on a PC, you cannot use it on a Mac and vice versa. Mind, you can use the PaperShow on multiple computers, but only on one platform. Which may be an issue – employees may have PC laptops but computers in meeting rooms, especially where clients and potential customers are to be won over and/or entertained, are often Macs…

To sum up, the PaperShow is a great concept – a great presentation tool indeed. It just needs to mature.


Reviewed by: Kristian Kilma

Posted in: Reviews

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