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Pen Computing

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PenBackground 1  

Pen-based computing, which is currently emerging as an alternative (or supplement) to mouse-based computing, is becoming more and more popular with creative types. Its popularity is being driven by three factors: user preference, technology, and applications.

Users interested in exploring the advantages of pen-based computing, that is, the possibility of using a stylus as opposed to a mouse typically fall into one or more the following three categories: artists and graphic designers, architects and industrial designers, and those who prefer using a stylus over a keyboard for taking notes (usually on a tablet).

These creative types like the feel of using a stylus and often compare their user experience, as well as the quality of that experience, to using a pen or pencil on paper. In other words, they want their experience with a digital stylus to be as natural as drawing, or writing, with a pen or pencil on a piece of paper.

Microsoft Surface Pro
Microsoft Surface Pro
Apple iPad Pro
Apple iPad Pro

The technology, which is just beginning to emerge as part of mainstream computing, such as that represented by Microsoft’s family of Surface products (Surface Pro, Surface Laptop, Surface Book, and Surface Studio), or Apple’s latest iPad, is now making it possible for users to satisfy their creative desires.

Applications, particularly those designed to support the needs of the artist, such as Painter by Corel and Adobe’s Photoshop, are taking full advantage of this new technology. The same can be said about the programs designed to meet the needs of the traveling note-taker, such as Evernote or Microsoft’s OneNote.

Applications designed to support the needs of the technical draftsman (architects, engineers, industrial designers, etc.) are still pretty-much mouse dependent. That is, they are designed to work with a mouse but only partially with a pen or stylus. Technical draftsmen fine this frustrating as they would like to use a pen but soon discover that pen-based computing is not fully supported.

SketchUp
SketchUp
ArchCAD
ArchCAD
Revit
Revit

The developers of the more popular technical drawing programs such as AutoCAD and REVIT by Autodesk, Archicad by Graphisoft, and SketchUp by Trimble, are all mouse dependent. These developers have made no announced plans to support pen-based computing. This is due to the fact that, when all is said and done, the mouse may very well be the preferred input device for this class of user.

The mouse offers three distinct advantages over the stylus: (1) the view area around the cursor controlled by a mouse is not blocked by the hand, (2) it is much easier to click the buttons on a mouse than it is to click the buttons on a digital pen, and (3) it is much easier to hold the position of the cursor steady with a mouse while typing in something, such as a dimension, than it is with a pen. These conditions may diminish or disappear altogether as the supportive technology improves and as the developers of drawing programs find ways around these limitations.

There are two basic types of pens: passive and active. Passive pens use capacitance to record their position and thus can work with any touch screen display. There main disadvantage is that their tip is quite large, compared to that of a pen or pencil, making it difficult, at least without considerable practice, to be precise.

Passive pen - click image to animate
Passive pen - click image to animate
Active pen - click image to animate
Active pen - click image to animate

Active pens contain electronics and are designed to work with a specific type of display. They typically have a much finer tip, giving the user greater control over the drawing process. Some of the performance features one should consider when selecting an active stylus and corresponding display screen include:

  • Palm Rejection – the ability to distinguish pen from skin, giving the user the ability to rest his or her hand on the screen while drawing with the pen. This distinction also gives the user the ability to use touch for navigation and feature selection while using the pen for drawing or writing.
  • Parallax – the visual offset between the tip of the stylus and the corresponding point displayed on the screen. Ideally, this offset should be, or appear to be, zero.
  • Latency – the time it takes to display the results of the pen’s action. Ideally, this differential should be, or appear to be, zero.
  • Pressure sensitivity – the pen’s capacity to respond to vertical pressure and the corresponding ability to condition the appearance of the point or line based on the degree of pressure.
  • Angle sensitivity – the pen’s capacity to respond to the angle of the pen relative to the surface of the display and the corresponding ability to condition the appearance of the point or line based on that angle.
  • Minimum Line width – the width of the thinnest line. The thinner the better.

The question for the geodesigner is, “Which works best for geo-sketching, geo-painting, and geo-drafting”. The current state of user experience, as well as supportive technology, tends to indicate that those interested in geo-sketching and geo-painting prefer the use of a digital pen or stylus. Those interested in geo-drafting, requiring a higher degree of dimensional precision, prefer the use of a mouse.

CAD mouse by 3Dconnexion
CAD mouse by 3Dconnexion
3D mouse by 3Dconnexion
3D mouse by 3Dconnexion

Mouse computing, at least for CAD professionals and those interested in 3D modeling, has evolved through the development of the CAD mouse and the 3D mouse. The CAD mouse can be described as a standard mouse designed specifically for the CAD user. A CAD mouse usually has additional buttons that can be customized to replicate frequently used software functions.

The 3D mouse is more like a joy-stick designed for the second hand, giving the user the user the ability to navigate 2D and 3D space with the user’s second hand while using the first hand for selecting program features and for creating and editing objects in the drawing. The 3D mouse, sometimes called a space mouse, supports six degrees of movement control and has become very popular with those doing 3D modeling.

See also: The 3D Mouse and other Pucks


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