Like a bored child who can't be bothered to read, this robot flips from page to page. This odd contraption is actually a new way to scan and digitize the world's books — at a speed of 250 pages per minute. Although it's only a research machine, that reading rate easily beats out manually-fed commercial scanners that only scan around 12 pages per minute.

The secret of the University of Tokyo's new system is to eschew the flatbed scanner used by most book digitizing systems, including the kind Google uses to digitize the British Libary's precious collections for instance. Instead, Masatoshi Ishikawa and Yoshihiro Watanabe use a process they have dubbed, for obvious reasons, Book Flipping Scanning.

In their technique, there's no need for a human operator to turn the pages laboriously, from one spread to the next. Instead, the book is held with its spine under slight tension, so that a robot arm with a stepper motor can flip from one page to the next by moving a fraction of a millimetre per spread. Then — and Google does this too — the page image is corrected for the 3D curviness of the page to provide a clean scan for the optical character recognition system.

However, whether precious books can cope with having their spines under tension in this way remains to be seen, and books/magazines/newspapers that are not perfect bound won't play ball either. Other ideas are on the way, however. At DIYbookscanner.org there's a whole community of book scanning fans swapping ideas - and a Google skunkworks project (employees can use 20 per cent of their time on their own projects) has come up with another bizarre-looking but effective scanner which uses a vacuum to turn pages at 11 pages per minute unattended.

The article originally appeared at New Scientist.