The age-old art of passing notes in class has gone high-tech, as students with handheld computers are foregoing pencil and paper to swap information surreptitiously via infrared beams.

The phenomenon, known as “beaming,” is catching on for its novelty and convenience. Standing or sitting just a few feet apart, people with portable devices like 3Com’s Palm Computing series or Handspring’s Visor can send notes, memos, business cards, and even software with a touch of a button.

“It’s kind of the geek handshake,” said Steve Kan, a management consultant in Los Angeles. When members of Kan’s family get together with their Palm computers, he said, “we swap information all the time.”

It is just one more way that technology is making it easier for people to exchange information quickly, without a lot of conversation or writing. Technology tools also make it easier for people to share very specific information, said Scott Chadwick, assistant professor of organizational communication at Iowa State University.

“People intentionally select and edit what they are going to communicate,” Chadwick said. “Beaming is a perfect example of that.”

Exchanging business cards is perhaps the most common use of this technology because the “beamed” information can automatically be stored in the computers’ address book. But the ease of beaming and the growing sales of handheld computing devices are making it popular beyond the professional realm.

At retailer Banana Republic’s flagship store in New York City, shoppers toting their handheld computers can get a map and directory of the store beamed to them by a concierge at the front desk.

“Technology is a part of everyone’s life,” said Cindy Capobianco, a company representative. “We wanted to recognize that and make it part of the shopping experience as well.”

A new television ad for Palm Computing shows its romantic possibilities: A woman on a train locks eyes with a man on another train the next track over. Just as they are about to speed off in opposite directions, she pulls out her computer and beams her number to him.

Naturally, students too are getting into the act. Chris Johnson, an information technology administrator in Western Australia, began beaming more than five years ago. Back then, he used an Apple Newton Messagepad to surreptitiously pass doodle-type notes in class.

“It has risen to the level of an information appliance,” said Jeff Bowman, a physician executive at St. Vincent Hospitals and Health Systems in Indianapolis. In the past few years, he has seen the popularity of the handheld computers burgeon among his colleagues, so that the staff at the center now shares meeting notes and other information.

Students and consumers are taking greater advantage of beaming as more friends and coworkers pick up their own devices, said John Cook, director of consumer products for Palm Computing.

Worldwide sales of handheld computers were expected to exceed $5.7 million in 1999, a 47 percent increase over 1998, according to the research firm Dataquest. Sales are expected to reach $21 million in 2003.

The technology’s applications are growing. For example, some owners of handheld devices also have infrared beaming equipment on their standard laptops or personal computers. That makes it possible for them to synchronize information between their machines.

Interactive games, where participants beam their moves back and forth to each other, are becoming another well-loved feature—much to the dismay of some teachers, who have seen their students play games from across the room instead of paying attention in class.

As beaming becomes more widespread, it is beginning to alter the way people interact. Cook cited the popularity of beaming in Japan, where trading business cards often is part of a cordial greeting. Now, users of handheld devices are “beaming and bowing.”

So, will handwritten notes soon become history? And will technology such as beaming become a substitute for real conversation? No one knows.

“I do counsel people to be careful, especially when it comes to communication,” said Steve Jones, a communications professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Palm Computing
http://www.palm.com/

Handspring Inc.
http://www.handspring.com/