The new generation of digital pens can do much more than draw lines on tablets, thanks to advances not only in pen technologies but also in biometrics and handwriting recognition.
Digital pens have been around almost as long as mice. But except for certain niche applications, such as painting or digital drawing tablets, they haven't been widely adopted. With the rapid growth of touchscreens for both laptop and desktop computing, however, digital pen manufacturers are eyeing new markets and the development of new capabilities to suit those markets.
Gary Baum of N-Trig Inc., an Israel-based maker of digital pens, said that the federal sector is a prime market for the new generation of digital pens, which can do much more than simply draw lines on tablets, thanks to advances not only in pen technologies but also in biometrics and handwriting recognition.
"So much of the federal sector is related to filling in forms, signing signatures, doing approvals, annotating documents, reviewing documents," Baum noted. "All that can be done electronically with a good, accurate pen. Our mission is to get the experience to the point where it's the same as a ballpoint pen on paper."
As touchscreens become more ubiquitous, Baum said, we may even see digital signatures with digital pens being used for secure logins.
"One of the big issues we have in the industry right now, particularly in the federal sector, is proving you are who you say you are," Baum said. "Why would we not use signatures as a biometric and allow users to log into a computer, website or shared file system network using a signature versus having to remember a whole variety of passwords?"
Baum said that today's digital pens have sensors and processing units that are up to the task of measuring a user's unique velocity and pressure in signing, as well as matching the finished signature itself to a registered reference signature to ensure the identity of the signer.
Recent improvements in digital pen capabilities have come largely in three areas: processing speed, sensor capabilities and interface "feel."
"Just crossing a 'T' takes 50 milliseconds," Baum said. "What if it takes me 50 or 100 milliseconds to see the pen, ink the pen, know I'm in inking mode, tell the application I'm in inking mode, get the application in that mode and get back to the screen? What if that takes more than 50 milliseconds for the first stroke? I can miss that entire stroke and have to do it again."
But faster processors and better designs have reduced latency times. "We sense pressure by the tip moving ever so slightly into the shaft of the pen," Baum said. "That mimics the feel of the pen on a pad of paper. It has a little give to it. We transmit it with RF signals, and the touch sensor picks this up. And we can process the signals very rapidly such that we don't miss first ink strokes."
In addition, thanks to shrinking processors and sensors, N-trig has been able to move its sensor closer to the tip of the pen, allowing for greater accuracy.
Finally, by experimenting with different ingredients in plastics compounds, companies like N-trig are getting better at mimicking on the glass of tablets and monitors the feel of pen on paper.
"We've spent hundreds of man-hours on that aspect," Baum said. "We have a variety of different tip materials, and we can match the two materials to the type of glass screen that the user wishes to use. Men tend to prefer a softer, stickier feel. Oftentimes women prefer more of a rollerball feel. "
As is often the case, one thing holding up development and deployment of advanced digital pens is a lack of standards. As it is, one manufacturer's digital pen only works with devices that have opted for that manufacturer's chipset.
"Wouldn't it be great if a pen could work with touch in much the way that a mouse works with a keyboard?" asked Baum. "Today, if I have an active pen on the screen of a Surface Pro, Microsoft Windows 8 turns off all touch. They don't want to have erroneous, unintended touches." Baum noted that N-trig has developed a DuoSense technology that allows simultaneous mouse and finger actions on a screen, but it only works on devices with N-trig's firmware.
"That's going to change in future generations of OS because users want it," Baum said. "There are a lot of use cases for simultaneous pen and touch."
NEXT STORY: DOD may get helmet-mounted display