Awesome Stuff: Handwritten Input For Anything, Anywhere

from the by-hand dept

Freehand input is hardly a new idea. It was a fixture of the early Palms, a feature of the famous Newton, and of course our primary means of "input" before computers came along. With the ascendance of touchscreens today, the capability is everywhere — and yet it still hasn't really caught on. Why? The three big reasons seem to be that screen real-estate is a premium and freehand input requires a lot of it, many devices simply aren't responsive enough to make it feel natural, and it isn't actually that useful in most situations. For this week's awesome stuff, we're looking at a device that aims to solve at least two of those problems: Phree, a laser-based digital pen.

The Good

Let's look at those three key issues again. The screen real-estate problem is what Phree aims to solve by its very nature, moving all that freehand work off your device's screen itself and onto any nearby surface. That alone would likely just exacerbate the second issue — responsiveness — but this is where the team's technological innovation is focused. In the video, they claim to have built the world's smallest 3D laser interferometer with new algorithms to achieve this high degree of accuracy in the compact device, and though I can't speak to the truth of this, the video does indeed show a very-responsive-looking system in action. If the finished product really works that well on such a wide array of surfaces, it'll have cleared the two key viability hurdles for the technology.

The Bad

The big question for anyone who has looked into this kind of device before is: can it compete with Livescribe, the current household name in smart pens? There are, of course, some big differences: Livescribe pens are real, functioning pens that also record what you write digitally, while the Phree is just an input device. The Livescribe can work as a standalone unit to record notes during the day then retrieve them digitally later, which it appears the Phree cannot. And, despite these missing capabilities, the Phree costs a bit more than a Livescribe 3.

That sounds pretty grim, but there are some factors running in the opposite direction: Livescribe pens only good for storing notes, not active live input of handwriting, and require you to actually be writing on paper at the same time; they operate through the cloud rather than being directly linked to your device by BlueTooth; and they have considerably fewer compatibility options, leaning heavily on a partnership with Evernote. The Phree is a far more versatile device.

In a way it's an unfair comparison, since the two are trying to accomplish different things, but I suspect it's the first comparison many people will make — and it's not entirely clear that Phree comes out on top.

The Useful?

We've established that the Phree aims to solve two of the three big issues with handwriting input, but what about the third? Freehand input has been possible for a long time — even longer than the multi-touch input we all use every day — but it's never really caught on. Part of this might be because the technology wasn't good enough, but there's a big question as to just how useful and desirable such input really is. Speaking for myself, I rarely find myself wishing for freehand when typing on my phone; on the occasions when I do want to jot and sketch more freely, I grab an actual pen and paper; and on the occasions when something I jot turns out to be important, I snap a photo of it. Obviously this process leaves a lot to be desired but, critically, it doesn't come up all that often.

On the other hand, I imagine there are many people with a different story to tell, who would love the ability to quickly and easily switch back and forth between typing and handwriting. The Phree could provide this with unprecedented responsiveness, and much more convenient workflow integration than existing smart pens — and that could definitely be a winner.

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Filed Under: awesome stuff, handwriting, smart pen

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  • icon
    Woadan (profile), 24 May 2015 @ 5:35am

    The first tablets from Microsoft around 2000 had Windows XP tablet edition installed. They all had excellent pen input, and they had plenty of screen real estate. Despite all of the badmouthing they've gotten over the years, Windows tablets actually got the handwriting thing right. And yet nobody ever gives them credit.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 24 May 2015 @ 1:05pm


      Windows XP was better than Windows 8. The only problem is that it's no longer supported. Part of the criticism is that Windows has gotten worse over the years. Too bad older versions of Windows are no longer being kept up to date to better work with newer hardware and other advancements and to repair vulnerabilities. If the interface ain't broke why fix it.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Andrew D. Todd, 24 May 2015 @ 8:42am

    My Problem is Drawing, Not Typing.

    Years ago, back in 1991, I did a test of my own writing and typing speeds. This was back when the first major pen (stylus)-based computer, the Go computer, had come out. I was trying to seen if the pen-based input method made sense.

    Anyway, my results were:

    Touch Typing: 44 WPM

    Semi-touch (using one hand freely, while holding the other in my lap) 35.6 WPM

    One-hand hunt and peck. I wrapped my typing hand in tape to disable the thumb and all but the index finger, with a view to simulating the effect of a pocket calculator keyboard, the sort of keyboard that any machine, no matter how compact, might have. In short, the kind of keyboard which a Blackberry would eventually have. As before, the other hand was in my lap, when it wasn't manipulating the stopwatch. 28 WPM

    Apparently, the _skill_ of knowing how to touch-type manifested itself, even through only one finger. My fingers knew where the keys were, even if they were keys normally used by other fingers.

    Handwriting (cursive) 26 WPM

    Block Printing 14.5 WPM

    The great virtue of a typewriter keyboard is that it eliminates the need for fine "motor" (muscular) control. Parenthetically, when I took mechanical drawing in engineering school, many years ago, I got "dinged" rather heavily, say about a letter grade, for the persistent messiness of my block printing.

    What I seem to use a pen or pencil for, apart from the briefest of notes or labels, is for drawing. I have never developed the precise control with a mouse which I have with a pen or pencil. I still have a set of essential mechanical drawing tools, viz. compass, rulers, and protractors, and French curves; an aluminum eraser shield, and a couple of typewriter erasers. These last are out of production, and correspondingly expensive, so I salvaged an old one by careful trimming with an X-acto knife. I think what I would like would be software which would print an evolving drawing, and then I would draw more stuff on the printed sheet, and either photograph or scan it, and the software would be able to recognize my modifications, and put them into a separate layer. You might print the drawing in shades of blue, a grid in green, like engineering graph paper, and reserve red for my pen. That way, you could scale and align a hand-held camera photograph by the green grid, discard the blue, and save the red as black.

    I think I could possibly use a kind of mini-printer, sort of like one of those self-inking address stamps. The idea would be that instead of raised rubber type it would have a little plate of offset-press material, and a mechanism to lay a pattern of ink on the plate, which would then be stamped onto some paper object which could not be made to fit through a conventional printer.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 24 May 2015 @ 1:15pm

      Re: My Problem is Drawing, Not Typing.

      I write very slow and my hand written printing is even hard for me to read sometimes (I don't even bother with cursive). Can't draw for nothing. The fastest I can type on a keyboard is 130 WPM at 100 percent accuracy (on a good day). I can't stand touch screens (using one now, though I am barley starting to get used to them after many years I still always find myself fixing things and am slow), I've been called a grandma by people who swipe incredibly fast with high precision on their phones. How do they do that?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Andrew D. Todd, 26 May 2015 @ 9:47am

        Re: Re: My Problem is Drawing, Not Typing.

        I don't know if you have ever tried drawing with graph paper. It makes it easier to judge proportions and scale.

        Incidentally, I found a website which does graph paper in the form of acrobat files. By the standards of a traditional engineering stationary store, it's a very lavish selection. Furthermore, graph paper was never remotely as cheap as typing paper or printer paper, so printing it off is a considerable bargain.

        and he's got a mailing label generator

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Ninja (profile), 25 May 2015 @ 6:43am

    Hmm. I see a lot of usefulness in this if coupled with a real pen/pencil that can actually write or draw things on a paper or you have some e-ink/touch/interactive screen that replicates what you do with high precision. The mouse may be a pain in the ass sometimes and your finger isn't the most accurate thing in the world. There are uses but it would be something above the devices you mentioned in the article.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    John Fenderson (profile), 26 May 2015 @ 8:01am

    I want freehand input

    there's a big question as to just how useful and desirable such input really is

    I strongly desire an input device similar to this (well, a combo of this and Livescribe. I take written notes during meetings (it's far less distracting than typing at a keyboard). It would be absolutely wonderful if those notes could be input to a computer for transcription. That would be incredibly useful.

    Phree doesn't work for this because it doesn't actually write anything. Livescribe doesn't work for this because it requires the cloud.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

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