With the notion of the paperless office fading into history, researchers from the University of Washington are working to more closely integrate the paper world — still on the rise — with the world of electronic data.

The researchers’ system uses a computer and overhead video camera to track physical documents on a desk and automatically link them to appropriate electronic documents. The researchers have constructed a pair of prototypes that track paper documents and sort photos without the use of special tags, paper or marks.

The paper-tracking system allows users to pinpoint the location of a given document within a stack of documents on the desktop. Users can find a document using keywords, document appearance, or by how recently a paper was moved. A user can ask, for example, “Where is my W-2 form?” The photo-sorting application allows users to sort digital photographs using printouts of the photos.

The researchers’ system infers the structure of a stack of papers from video images. A user moves paper X from stack A to stack B, then moves paper Y from stack A to stack C, for example. The system parses the video into a pair of individual movements and then interprets each event to determine how the documents were reorganized.

The system can begin with a desk that is already full of documents; it will gradually index documents as a person moves them. Users can also browse desktops in remote locations by clicking and dragging on an image of the remote desk.

The system could be ready for practical use on general desktops in three to four years, according to the researchers. They presented their work at User Interface Software and Technology 2004 (UIST ’04), held in Santa Fe, New Mexico, October 24-27, 2004.

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