New UB System Turns Hard Copy Into Electronic Mail, Reads Business Reply Cards Right At The Post Office

Release Date: September 23, 1994 This content is archived.


WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Fill out a business reply card to subscribe to a magazine or place a merchandise order and soon you may be sending your order for a ride on the information superhighway.

Computer scientists at the University at Buffalo's Center of Excellence for Document Analysis and Recognition (CEDAR) have developed a new technology that captures handwritten and machine-printed orders as electronic data and transmits them to companies.

By electronically processing business reply cards right at the neighborhood post office, the concept called Postal Image Management Systems (PIMS), would eliminate the delays involved in forwarding the card, as well as the labor at the company required to key-in the information.

Funded by the U.S. Postal Service, the concept is being demonstrated here today at The Postal Forum, the nation's premier mailing-industry trade show.

"This is an excellent example of how we're going to marry hard-copy mail with electronic mail," said Robert Reisner, vice president of technology applications for the postal service. "Reply-card scanning is a hybrid product that can improve mail service and increase the value of emerging technologies."

This week, Neodata, a publisher's fulfillment warehouse in Boulder, Colo., is testing the first working prototype of the Client Image Management System (CIMS), the part of the system companies will use. It is receiving images from business reply cards processed by a PIMS prototype at a general mail facility in Dallas.

Within a year, the UB scientists expect the system to be able to read and interpret 90 percent of machine-printed business reply cards and 50 percent of those that are handwritten.

The new concept could cost businesses up to 60 percent less than a toll-free telephone number.

According to the U.S. Postal Service, consumers send about 500 million business reply cards each year, ordering everything from magazine subscriptions and CD's to clothing and books. From the time a customer fills out the card and drops it in a mailbox, to the time it's received and processed, it may be a week or more, slowing customer service and delaying billing and payments.

With this concept, as soon as a card arrives at a post office, its barcode would signal to the optical scanner that it should be diverted from the rest of the mailstream to the PIMS. Dedicated workstations then would scan the cards and capture the information on them, using hardware and software developed by UB computer scientists.

"Our system intercepts the cards, captures the information the customer has filled in and transmits it over telecommunication links to the appropriate company," said Sargur Srihari, Ph.D., UB professor of computer science and director of CEDAR. "The card may never need to leave the post office."

For the postal service, the technology represents a new link to the information superhighway. Companies planning to test the new system include Fingerhut, a major catalog publisher in Minneapolis, and Rodale Press, a publisher of health books and magazines in Emmaus, Pa.

The system also has proven successful reading utility cards bearing pictures of dials. Customers draw arrows on the dials to represent how much energy they have used.

The new technology represents the next generation of "intelligent" electronic systems capable of making sense of human handwriting, according to Srihari.

While optical scanners in use today easily digest most machine-printed letters, handwritten information is notoriously difficult for computers to "read."

CEDAR, whose scientists in 1991 developed the first computer system to read handwritten ZIP Codes, is recognized internationally for its work in the development of off-line handwriting recognition technology.

"An address may be incorrect or illegible, but a human being looking at it still knows what the writer meant," Srihari explained. "That's the level of intelligence we are trying to achieve with this system."

Currently, operators working at catalog or subscription companies key into a database information taken directly from business reply cards received in the mail.

"Should these tests prove successful, data from business reply cards can be transmitted to client companies within 12-18 hours of being received in the post office," explained Venu Govindaraju, Ph.D., CEDAR project manager.

Information will be waiting for clients in their electronic mailboxes. Operators at the client company may need to verify or check certain images that the computer couldn't read. All new orders then will be deposited into the company's databases, where they immediately will be processed.

"Even in cases where the handwriting is too difficult to read, the image itself will be transmitted to the company barely a day after the customer sent it," said Govindaraju. "So the company never has to deal with the hard copy and the order gets processed as much as a week earlier, which translates into major savings for the company."

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