Mobile capture: the hype, the truth, the future

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Keywords: mobile capture, document imaging, future

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There is no surprise that the capture world is talking a lot about mobile capture.  Mobile capture is a way to boost the energy level and excitement around a technology that has clear business value.  It also is a pull-through way to get end-users to understand what imaging actually is.  I myself have invested a lot of energy into mobile capture, as demonstrated when I created LivingSCAN, a first at the time (www.livingscan.com). And it was this exercise that brought to the forefront what we can expect from the mobile capture craze.

In the last four years new software, primarily in the “Cloud”, and hardware has surfaced to make mobile capture work.  Mobile capture happens in two categories mobile device only capture, or mobile device attached to a mobile scanner capture.  Making the distinction between these two categories is extremely important.  Both methods have their benefits and problems.

The Hype:  It might be a “too good to be true” scenario, there is one major problem with mobile capture that should be blatantly obvious to the discerning business users, but isn’t.  And that is, how does the accuracy compare?  Not only is the capture hardware used in mobile capture (in both methods) deficient to dedicated scanning hardware, it adds a much greater human variable.  Both methods of mobile capture are highly reliant on the capture user to produce a quality image.  Interestingly the more popular mobile capture becomes the less the focus is on training users to do it correctly.  I see this as one of the biggest areas of growth.  The human element will always be greater in mobile capture than in a static capture environment.  I would argue that because of this the accuracy will never be that of a dedicated capture environment, but it will come close.  The same tools used to improve accuracy in the dedicated capture environment can be leveraged in mobile capture to get it there. 

The second Hype is around convenience.  The mobile world has painted a picture of, everything mobile is better and more convenient, but this is not always the case.  The proof is in the testing.  Try to capture a five page or more double-sided agreement and accurately take photos of each page.  Time yourself.  Like handwriting what tends to happen is the capture quality of the final pages is far less than the first, and the amount of time it takes is much more than expected.

The Truth:  Now that I have torn you down a bit, let’s talk about what is great about mobile capture.  First off, it will drive an ageing market forward to the users who clearly benefit from the technology but not been utilizing it.  It will make it easier to track personal documents.  For users such as insurance adjusters, home care nurses, truck drives it will allow them to do their job and do it more efficiently. Just to name a few.  It reduces the demand on paper replication, and reduces the risk of paper documents remaining paper.  Diving deeper.  In mobile device only mobile capture, this mode will excel at a limited number of pages for the purpose of rapid capture.  It should be facilitated by a guide / wizard driving users to the best result.  A lot of talk is put into the camera mega-pixels, but the reality is that user skill is even more important.  For the second mode, mobile device with attached mobile scanner, this is excellent for multi-page documents.  The quality of this type of capture far outweighs that of mobile device only.  However, it is more costly, and creates heavy bandwidth demands.

Mobile capture will have a demonstrable value to organizations in a myriad of ways depending on the business model.  One good example is the transportation and logistics space.  Mobile capture keeps trucking companies DOT compliant faster, makes truck drivers more efficient, avoids out of the way trips just to find a truck stop with a document scanner, or needless paper shipping costs.  For the End-users, mobile capture will allow them to document life’s paper driven activities more readily.  Recently, I signed a 3-page contract for a wedding photographer, but forgot to scan it ( this hardly ever happens so don’t get used to it ), luckily I had my cell phone and could capture the pages, and convert them to PDF as I would normally.

The Future:  The future of the mobile capture market is going to be big, but maybe not in the direction you think.  It’s going to be more about quality and efficiency rather than cool new gadgets that are clearly better because they are new.  We will see improvement in the “Cloud” applications for image manipulation and OCR, even data capture.  We will see crowd sourcing applications for character verification and validation.  In the specific modes, we will see a lot of interesting changes.

Mobile device only capture, will dominate the end-user market.  It will rely heavily on imaging algorithms in the “Cloud”.  As users get more used to the approach, they will improve their skill.  There will be less focus on what the technology is vs. what result it provides. Meaning the typical user will be using OCR, but have no idea what OCR is.  Yes mega-pixels will increase, but this will be less beneficial than the improved capture wizards, and imaging algorithms.

Mobile device with attached mobile scanner capture, will dominate the business market.  This approach was first steered away from, AKA LivingSCAN, but is now a focus. Hardware companies are looking to enter this space more heavily.  Not because of money, but because they have to, to remain “cool”.  Mobile scanners will start to include more of the functionality right in the hardware such as SDRAM cards and Bluetooth enabled.  Mobile devices to will beef up Bluetooth, and I hope start supporting powered USB standard over mini-USB.  Applications will be developed around compression during image transfer to a server, and better image queuing methods.

My experience in mobile image capture has been that the marketing does not fit the reality, but my enthusiasm for the growth of the market is just as great as the next.  In the next two years, we will see very quickly where mobile capture begins to mature.

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