The pen isn’t dead, and touch hasn’t entirely taken over, as I witnessed in person, thanks to some friends at Microsoft Research.
Last friday, I got the opportunity to spend some time with Ken Hinckley and Michel Pahud of Microsoft Research in Redmond, and see a small preview of future innovations in tablet and touch technology.
Ken Hinckley was nice enough to give me a small tour, followed by a chat over lunch, and allowed me to snap a few photos of his original dual-screen prototypes for the Codex project. (pictured below) “Codex” was actually two UMPC’s talking to each other wirelessly, joined together via a very well engineered hinge, that Ken himself designed. I’d also worked with Michel Pahud on a previous project years ago, so this was an opportunity to catch up and say hello. (Michel had designed some interactive games and programs, using my artwork as graphics and animation.)
Dual-display devices appear to have a well-motivated role to play in the ecosystem of mobile devices. The related research that we have discussed on how people approach sensemaking tasks such as reading in conjunction with writing, our own contributions of new techniques and automatically sensed postures for dual-screen devices, and the comments from users in our paper prototyping and usability studies together make a good case that dual-display devices have a promising future. The two screens of the Codex afford a separation of concerns in reading versus writing, public versus private, and other partitions of task roles and views. By supporting facile transitions between usage contexts, the Codex enables such a future without constantly encumbering the user with complex window management and mode switching tasks. -Ken Hinckley
After a brief little walk, we arrived at Ken’s office. He then poured through his drawers near his desk, producing more tablets than one man should be legally allowed to have by law. Right up front, a nice black Sahara I440D. ( I miss mine! ) And there..yes, that’s two of the made in Japan only Versa LitePad Pro tablets, as a second or third prototype made for the Codex project. Wow, seeing two of these really knocked me off my feet. What really amazed me, was how incredibly light a machine made in 2004 was! Ken removed one of the tablets from it’s binder, having been set in place with velcro and let me hold it for a brief moment.
In Ken’s own words, this old NEC tablet “actually would give the Ipad a run for it’s money.” and I’d have to agree.
I got a nice demonstration of the Surface table, and examples of a few drawing applications running on the tablet pc, with a modified Ntrig driver that would allow for both the capacitive touch screen, as well as the pen to be used .. at the same time! Michel demonstrated, with a two finger motion, spreading his fingers out, a simple menu for his drawing application opened. The pen was used to pick tools, and the instant he stopped holding his fingers apart, the interface cleanly vanished. Very intuitive, and simple. I really liked the fact that the gadgets for the paint app could appear anywhere. Also, page rotation and scale could be controlled in a similar fashion, with the left hand rotating and scaling, the right hand with the pen, doing the drawing and sketching. There were also several hinted interactions with surface / mulitouch applications and the upcoming Windows smartphones.
This summary from a published research paper by Ken Hinckley:
The key is: The mode switch is in the user’s hand: he can work one-handed and flip between pen and touch by rapidly tucking the pen between fingers, or he can work with two hands by performing most touch operations with the nonpreferred hand, while writing and annotating with the pen in the preferred hand.
I also witnessed this combined simultaneous pen and touch technology working in a build of the program “Project Gustav”, a natural paint program that I can’t wait to get my hands on.. *hint* *hint* . . . guys? -( Did my best at trying to get a definitive answer on when or if this program will be available to the general public, but no one seemed to know. )
With all the incredible innovation happening at Microsoft, we haven’t seen the end of the pen by a long shot. I left feeling really excited about tablets again, and the direction they’re taking things at Microsoft to enable new levels of usability and creative thinking in our day to day computing experience.
My thanks to Ken and Michel at Microsoft Research for taking time out to talk to a scruffy cartoonist.
Until next time..