Oxford scanner reveals secrets of documents, ancient and modern

A scanner which combines the convenience of a desktop scanner with the functionality of a powerful laboratory imaging device has been developed at the University of Oxford’s Classics Department, and is now being commercialised by a new company Oxford Multi Spectral Limited which was today spun out by the University’s technology transfer company Isis Innovation.

The scanner was developed for imaging ancient papyri and the technology has been used to successfully scan, restore and archive over a quarter of a million historically significant manuscripts.

Oxford Multi Spectral Limited (OMS) will focus on the applications in restoring manuscripts and art, as well as the huge potential market for detecting forged security and border control documents, bank notes and forensic evidence.

Managing director of Forensic Document Services, the biggest forensic document company in the Asia Pacific, Paul Westwood, explained the Oxford scanner could be used to analyse a huge variety of samples, including crime scene samples, such as counterfeit and altered documents and documents bearing erased or faded entries and signatures: “The portable nature of the scanner means that it will be a great resource when document examiners are required to undertake examinations out of the laboratory environment, such as at Court Registries or the offices of opposing lawyers."

H added: "We anticipate that using the Oxford scanner will be like moving from using a dark room to using a modern digital camera. We can use it to detect what is currently invisible and make it visible. The compact design and powerful imaging and analysis will be of great benefit to document examiners worldwide.”

OMS CEO, Mike Broderick said: “OMS delivers multispectral imaging capabilities superior to large laboratory systems in a very cost-effective apparatus."

He added: “Current multispectral imaging kits use cameras, but they are large, expensive and need specialist operators. Our scanner uses well-proven flat-bed scanner technology and powerful image processing to scan visible and ‘invisible’ features which absorb and reflect light at different wavelengths such as inks, pigments, polymers or papers.”

Dr Alexander Kovalchuk, the physicist who invented the scanner explained: “An ordinary colour image has three layers: red, green and blue; a multispectral image has many more layers, some of which are invisible to the human eye, but all of these layers contain potentially useful information. Our scanner is capable of registering an unlimited number of layers.”

Dr Dirk Obbink, University Lecturer in Papyrology and head of the research group which developed the scanner said: “The technical leaps we made mean many ancient documents which were previously unreadable can now be scanned and read."

He added: “We can take digital images at different wavelengths of the light band and layer them on top of each other, using software to analyse them. We can set the equipment to interrogate a feature we are interested in: the surface structure, fibres, stains, watermarks, fingerprints, or alterations. We can detect an artist or writer’s signature under multiple layers of paint or the pencil sketch under a watercolour.”

OMS has secured an investment of £250,000 from a Chinese investor Changsha Yaodong Investment Consulting Co and its UK based partner RTC Innovations to commercialise, manufacture and market the scanners globally. It received £47,600 from the University Challenge Seed Fund last year for prototyping work.

Isis Innovation managing director Tom Hockaday said: “OMS will be the first spin-out from the University of Oxford’s Classics department and indeed from the University's Humanities Division. We are delighted to see the impact of this technology across other disciplines.”

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