May 10

So you thought smart devices were finally killing off hand-writing… Wrong???

The arrival of PCs seemed to sound the death knell of hand-writing. To most, the arrival of smartphones, tablets and other devices was more like adding nails to an already well-prepared coffin.  But this might not be so if Israeli company N-trig (www.n-trig.com) has its way.

Most content creation today uses keyboards, mice and occasionally some form of purpose-specific pointing device (like Apple’s Magic Trackpad or the Wacom family of digitizers). When the typewriter superseded pen and paper and then the keyboard superseded the typewriter it seemed that hand writing skills were doomed (if not unnecessary), unless exploited for specialty purposes (which still includes signing documents).  Yes, a few stylus smart devices appeared (remember HTC’s XDAs) but these were, broadly, few and far between — and none really achieved deep commercial penetration or acceptance.

The appearance of the iPad and other modern tablet devices with multi-gesture touch sensitive screens (and to a lesser extent the equivalent on smartphones) created an opportunity for providing content-rich consumption platforms.  In this new world even use of a physical keyboard was put in doubt: virtual keyboards looked to take over.

That said,  a small number of hand-writing protagonists refused to give up.  For example, Fujitsu provides an intelligent stylus with its StylisticQ550, Windows 7 tablet, which certainly makes a difference (most Q550 adopters are enterprises).  Fujitsu, however, did not make the stylus nor the touch sensing capabilities: instead, as with a number of other manufacturers (including Dell, Toshiba and HTC) it sourced a combination solution from N-trig and included the latter’s products as part of their own products.

After visiting N-trig, to understand better how its Duosense works with Windows 8 CR — on a Q550 tablet — it is clear that N-trig does not believe hand-writing is dead.  Indeed the opposite is true.

N-trig’s view is that multi-touch screens combined with a suitable pen-device are the future — one where hand-writing re-enters the main stream on tablets as a principle way of working.  In this vision, which applies as much to the classroom as to the corporate world, tablets provide the friendly platform on which users can enjoy a writing experience that is as near to paper as is conceivable — with the additional benefit that using hand-writing recognition software (from the likes of French software partner Vison Objects — www.visionobjects.com) means you can turn your manuscript into digital information.

What has changed?  Essentially both touch sensitive screens and pens have evolved to be much more sophisticated than those of the past.  Today these are ever more precise and accurate — plus they can exploit features like pressure sensitivity to deliver an effect that astonishes in its similarity to writing on paper. It is not the same but it is near enough with sufficient side-benefits to justify  interest.

Is this relevant?  This is a different question, but one which can be approached from three complementary angles:

  • education
  • today’s workforce
  • the more elderly.

In the first instance there are people (for example Elane Scott) who argue that many of today’s school children are gaining reduced skill sets because they do not learn the hand-eye coordination skills that writing requires.  While this may not matter too much until University, she argues that students will lose out long term.  Introducing hand-writing with pens on tablets could reverse this trend.  (There are, or course, others — like Apple aficionados — who argue that typing on a virtual tablet is broadly a good replacement for hand-writing.)

Most of today’s workforce was originally (at some point) trained to hand-write but now prefers to use a keyboard rather than put pen or pencil to paper.  However, much of the resistance to pen and paper is that it does not produce digital input.  If it did, matters might change.  Think about how potentially simple and productive it would be to fill in a form or hand-write a note that could become a digital email (and how much more friendly meetings would be if people are not hiding behind screens and tapping away at keyboards).  Arguably the corporate or enterprise world is ready for a decent pen/tablet combination — whether for writing, form filling, signatures, drawing sketches or whatever.  Indeed a good tablet/pen combination might even do away with the need for paper, which neither the PC nor tablet nor smartphone have yet achieved.

Finally there are the elderly, who definitely used and still use pen and paper.  Just as babies take to iPads almost instantly (including how inadvertently to reconfigure them), so do the elderly take to some functions on a tablet.  Content consumption, like reading, is common. Skype-ing is practical.  But typing on a virtual keyboard requires a stretch of the imagination too far for many. So what would happen if an N-trig-like vision materializes and hand-writing is almost as good as on paper?  This could be yet another opportunity for the new generation of tablets that is waiting to appear to establish a new contribution of quality to life…

As always the acid test will be using tablets with touch screens and pens. If the experience really can closely resemble writing on a paper pad, then an even bigger revolution could occur than has already happened with the iPad (as the cheerleader for tablets).  Speaking personally for a moment, I am looking forward to seeing how a combination of pen and tablet change how I work.  On this, more at a later date.

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