I created Scanner Bin after a few rather frustrating experiences with trying to deposit checks via smartphone application for a large bank (who will remain nameless for this story). The way the app works is that you simply take a picture of the check with your phone and enter in some information and you are able to deposit that check into your bank account, remotely. This is obviously saves you a trip the bank and really comes in handy when it works. However, if the image isn’t perfectly clear then the app will reject it and make you try again. In one case, the check had been folded and would not lay flat. When I held it flat with my hand, the software didn’t like that. In another case, I must have had too much coffee, because the slight shake of my hand as I held the phone over the check resulted in a blurred image and the app required that I re-take the image… and it happened multiple times in a row. Another time, the overhead lights in our kitchen created a shadow of my hand and the smartphone over the check, and again the smartphone couldn’t read it. The app triggers a flash in the case of low-lighting, but with the overhead lighting casting shadows, it didn’t know it needed flash (it’s automatic based on ambient light detection).
So, I thought through many different ways that you could setup a stand to hold and align your smartphone, block any shadows from ruining your image, and hold paper flat (light a flatbed scanner does). As you can imagine, there are many ways you could accomplish this. However, the solution had to be inexpensive, portable, and it had to work for more than just check deposits. People use their smartphones to scan receipts, letters, notes, product warranties, read QR codes, business cards, and many other items. There are dozens of scanning apps to go with each one of those use cases. Additionally, there are now several popular smartphone models (not just one) and hundreds of cases to choose from – all resulting in various dimensions. So the stand accessory had to work for any of them.
It became clear to me that the most inexpensive, light weight and rigid solution would simply be in the shape of a thin corrugated fiberboard box on it’s side with a cutout on the top, which allows for the camera and flash to align with what you place in the box. Card stock would be too flimsy and most fiberboard would be unnecessarily thick and heavy. Additionally, a fiberboard box could be easily folded to lay flat for easy storage.
Now that I had the basic shape for scanning, I realized that 99% of the time this accessory would be just sitting in an office or room. If the unit was folded up in a drawer, then it would have to be unfolded each time it is used – which isn’t convenient. Then I looked down at my desk and noticed stacks of bills and papers and it occurred to me that this box could also serve as sort of a recycling bin, when placed with the opening facing up. Therefore, you could toss in whatever you need to scan later and then do it all at once – batch processing saves time.
At this point, I still didn’t know how to solve the issue of scanning folded paper. I tried using static electricity, but that was unreliable. I tried using a silicone mat, but that would quickly become dusty and lose it’s ability to hold the paper. Then, I put a piece of Plexiglas over a receipt and while it certainly held it flat, there was a horrible glare spot right in the middle of the image from the camera flash. Finally, I placed two sheets of Plexiglas down and left a gap directly beneath the flash. The result was a flattened paper, with no flash glare. Plexiglas is a little overkill to hold a receipt flat, and tough to cut, but I eventually found a heavy-enough transparent sheet that could have a hole easily punched out of the middle.
Now, I knew that this solution would need to ship around the globe and it would need to be portable for the student or business person that needs to scan while on the go. The standard design of the box would not allow a small enough footprint for either of those to be reasonable. Therefore, I designed an extra score by which to fold the box over itself, so that it fit within a 11″ x 12″ footprint.
Back to the large variety of phones and cases. It became clear to me that trying to build inexpensive and light-weight alignment features to match all the varieties was impossible. Also, I knew that these alignment features had to be 3-D as the key is to scan quickly, which means you don’t want to spend those extra seconds between each scan carefully checking your alignment. Therefore, the solution was to provide two 3-D bumpers that have an adhesive side, which I found by chance when I bought a whiteboard at Costco (they were used to provide space between the whiteboards during shipping). Two of these bumpers can be placed around the cutout in order to provide consistent alignment without losing a second.
Finally, after experimenting with different types of paper and mediums I was disappointed to find that photographs, magazines, and many other documents are too glossy to work with camera flash – without that glare spot being present. I looked into attaching an LED strip within the box but found that it only resulted in multiple glare spots. After a lot of experimenting, I simply went back to the most obvious solution – a desk-top lamp positioned in front of the box and not directly pointed at the material to be scanned. With a standard daylight (5000K) bulb, you can take perfect images of high gloss materials as long as the flash on the smartphone is turned off – which will happen automatically with most apps but in some cases requires that you select the right setting. As a side benefit, I realized this solution also worked for taking pictures of small products, as is required for ecommerce business. In that case however, you can use a long sheet of paper (pushed into the bin) to create a curved backdrop and create full-fledged light box.