The possible next phase for pen tablets – part one

Posted on February 14, 2010


I think the iPad is opening a new market. Not because it is “awesome” but because Apple got two things right: offering a solution that is easy to use and offering you the type of user experience (opening applications and doing things) that feel “natural“. One part is the touch-interface which allows you to do all kinds of stuff without requiring a keyboard or mouse. The other is how the applications behave to the actions and interactions of the user.

A possible next phase for pen tablets and tablet PC’s

In the past weeks I went through different design phases, thinking about possible new directions pen tablets could go. In this post I will look at display techniques, pen-tablets, tablet-PC’s and use cases for pen-input, describing the different aspects of each element. In a third post you will find the conceptual sketches. If you want to skip this and the second article and go right into the concept, go to this one.

Wacom Bamboo fun

To start my explorations of possibilities I bought the Wacom Bamboo Fun tablet.

There are many others offering similar solutions, but the basis stays the same.

I bought the Bamboo Fun as it has a A5-sized drawing area. The Fun is placed in the middle-end of the tablets Wacom sell. The low end are for instance the Bamboo Touch and Bamboo pen, offering a A6 sized drawing area and costing about 60 euros. The high end tablets are the Cintiq (starting at 900 euro)  and the PL series (starting at 1000 euro). Both PL and Cintiq add a display to the drawaing area so you can directly see what you are doing.

Portable and alternative forms of input

What these tablets lack is portability. I can use them only when connected to a computer, but I also want to be able to make drawings and notes on the road. To test alternative forms of input started looking for something more direct, based on pen-to-paper concepts. Looking for the digital notepad by Medion I found the Dane-elect zPen and instead. After purchasing the zPen I learned about the Livescribe pen, which seems to be the most effective solution yet regarding “using pen-input for the computer”.

Main problem with Tablet-PC’s as portable devices

The biggest issue with any tablet PC is the fragility of the electronics and the screen. When I drop the device from my hands, chances are high that either the glass, or the display itself will crack, the  and the hard drive will crash (even though it is protected from that)

LCD and led displays

It can break


e-Paper is a totally different beast. It is flexible, less sensitive for shock and breaking than the classic displays and slow. Read an 2007 article about the different possible fields of e-paper use here.

Main criticism on the iPad

The iPad is a closed system. It has a limited use case, where it could do so much more. I will elaborate on alternative “iPad killer” use cases extensively in the next article.

Wacom Cintiq and PL series

These high-end tablets offer a better experience when drawing, as you can see what you are doing when doing it. That’s the good thing about them.

But they can not be used stand alone, which is kind of strange. To make them into a full fledged computer with storage and a CPU only costs another 100 to 150 euro. Due to this, the use case of these tablets remain limited. See my other post to see an alternative use case.

Bamboo and other pen tablets

The “low end” tablets mainly offer an alternative form of input to the mouse. Working on them is a “blind” process. To see what you are doing, you need to look at the screen. To learn to draw on a surface and get feedback from a screen involves a small, but still present learning curve. Weirdly enough, you need to adjust the tablet to the position of the screen. The moment the tablet is tilted relatively to the screen, drawing a horizontal line becomes close to impossible unless you train yourself.

Portable Pen input using direct feedback

Dane-elec zPen

Medion MD 85276 (from BloggED)

The Livescribe

There are several solutions available on the market. The basis is this: you can work offline, draw on plain paper and import the result on your computer later. Each uses a different approach.

The zPen uses ultrasound, sent from the pen’s tip to the lump shown underneath the pen which you clamp on the top of any piece of paper. The problem of this technology as implemented in the zPen is that the transmitter is several millimeters from the tip of the pen. Thus: when you tilt the pen, the relative position of your scribbles will “move” with the tilt of your pen, leading to “broken” drawings.

The Medion MD 85276 is apparently similar to the Aiptek Mynote. The Medion and MyNote apparently use a touch sensitive surface. I have not tested this one yet, so I can not say anything about the quality.

The Livescribe is amazing on paper. You only need the pen and paper with a specific pattern printed on it: which you can print out yourself. The pen uses an infrared camera to register it’s position, using the printed pattern of dots on the paper. Using that approach you can also add functionality. As shown in the photo, you can includevirtual buttons” on the paper to start and stop audio-recording, make bookmarks and so on.