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Human Computer Interactions: The Stylus Pen Then and Now

One of the many multi-platform digital pens doing it right.
One of the many multi-platform digital pens doing it right.
Photo Courtesy of used with permission.

A stylus, is a stylus. Is a stylus.

That was the belief a decade ago, to say nothing of the 1957 Styalator. Electronic pens were nothing more than clunky sticks with blunt tips, or too small to be wieldy. The Palmpilot Professional was unreliable. The Nintendo DS used an easily-lost toothpick-sized pen. The touchscreen largely fought the utility of these clunky devices, and, until recently, was winning.

You've no doubt dealt with the hassle. Any consumer with a credit card has botched their signature in a checkout line. Ordered something online? You probably gave the UPS guy your blurry electronic signature with, you guessed it, a stylus.

The problem with the majority of these electronic pens is, they're blunt. The pen (and pad) doesn’t know when you're switching between a jot and a swivel. The pressure is either a hair-trigger or requires Herculean strength. If you want to relive the frustration of old-fashioned stylus pens, simply use the positive end of a battery as a pen on your touchscreen.

The problems were not lost among developers. In May of 2012, Natural User Interface Developers did a guest speech at the University of Houston about the frontiers of human-computer interaction research. UH invited Dr. Xiangshi Ren, of the Kochi University of Technology in Japan, and Yizhoung Xin, an associate professor at Shenyang University of Technology in China, as well as a few of their graduate students.

"Today is NUI," Ren said, referring to Natural User Interface, usually invisible yet easy for the user to learn. "But what will be the future for Human Computer Interaction?"

The talk was design vs. interaction in a world of ever increasing casual uses of computers and non-keyboard interfaces. Mind you, this talk was a year before Google began handing Glass out to explorers.

"The aspects for computers are of the old to new: mainframe to PC. Watches, pacemakers, phones," Ren said. "The problem for researchers is how to better the input. Different devices like stylus and multitouch. And the full human body: eye, tongue, brainwaves."

What he referred to as haptic interfaces: swiping, writing with a stylus pen, and even body language, were unbalanced communication with humans and computers. Natural user interfaces, such as keyboards, were changing.

According to Xin, the design of the stylus at the time interfered with the ability for a user to interact with the pen, and whatever screen the pen worked on, even though pens are a timeless tool.

"Pens are good for human interactions," Xin said. "They are common, and easy to learn and use. Advantages with pens are their ability to do pressure and tilt, as well as swivel."

In order to design them efficiently, Xin said, the developers would have to find the correlations among design and proficiency. Xin and his graduate students had done experiments with test subjects using pens to write, measuring the pressure, tilt and azimuth. Their main issue was to prevent false switching. As in, the interface mistaking a jab for a cross.

"We also found that pen pressure increased for writing large characters and decreased for writing small," Xin said.

Two years after that talk, stylus pens have advanced. Not only do individual devices have better working styli, but certain companies have developed multi-platform versions that do more than just provide a positive charge. The Adonit, a stylus with a 1.9mm tip, is able to work on a tablet or smartphone and behave in much the same way a normal pen would. There isn't a clip on the pen, nor is there a holster that comes with it. Aside from causing a market for pen cases, this doesn't help much. But the stylus runs cheap (about $30 for a simple version, about $80 for the "pro") and it's one of many models on the shelves.

With the advanced digital pens comes the apps that go with it. From faux notebook paper to pseudo art studios, the escalation of mediums for the interface will only make the developers improve.

It will still be a few decades before pencils and ink pens are phased out, but as our reliance on computers grows into our watches and shades, it's only natural that the way we communicate with computers antes-up.

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