Tablets and smartphones seem like an ideal platform for pens: They've got flat surfaces and can fit in the palm of your hand. And there are some tasks for which swiping a finger or pecking at a digital keyboard just aren't suited. I tested a DuoSense digital pen from N-Trig to see if the device could capture the utility and feel of pen on paper. I was happy to ditch the keyboard in favor of the pen, but I found that you need to have the right device and apps to work the magic.
N-Trig loaned me an HTC Flyer tablet and its latest pen for evaluation. Though I have a couple of recent Android tablets and iDevices, nothing in my fleet is DuoSense-capable. Right now, there are no DuoSense-friendly Apple devices, and just under two dozen Android and Windows 8 mobile devices that can support the pen and touch capabilities of DuoSense. N-Trig promises a number of announcements throughout 2013, including one at this year's Mobile World Congress, but right now the supported device list is limited.
The underlying technology behind DuoSense is cool. It distinguishes between legitimate pen strokes and incidental contact, and also tolerates your palm leaning on the screen while you draw or write. I found myself quickly hooked on using the pen for taking notes, marking up floor plans and other tasks.
The tablet ran a set of apps that worked with the digital pen, including VisionObjects' MyScript Notes Mobile, Equation and Shape; Unidocs' ezPDF Reader; and AutoDesk's Sketchbook Pro. I created dozens of pages of meeting notes and minutes as if I were writing on paper, and they were transformed into text with amazing accuracy. I took photos with the tablet's camera, marked them up and quickly shared them via email. I could highlight documents, hand-write complex equations and draw pictures. After spending some time with the product, I think every tablet (and many apps) would greatly benefit from the technology.
I also handed the tablet to my wife, who's an RN and administrative director at a local hospital where reducing paper use is a primary goal. She envisioned a number of ways that medical staff, from doctors to patient educators, could put this input method to use.
Meanwhile, the University of Texas at Austin has a small pilot program that will provide the digital pens and tablets to teachers, who will use them to take notes during student conferences. The goal of the pilot is to determine whether such products "can enhance teaching, learning and assessment of children's literacy."
However, before N-Trig and other digital pen manufacturers can hope to make a significant dent in the market, they need to dramatically expand the available platforms on which they run, and get a variety of business and consumer applications to support the technology. If that happens, and digital pen support becomes a common feature on mobile devices, we may someday reach a point where pen input comes to dominate the keyboard.
For now, I've gotten so used to using the pen for various tasks that I'm dragging my feet in returning my evaluation gear. It's funny to think how work migrated from pen and paper to computers and tablets, and might migrate again to electronic pen and paper. There really is nothing new under the sun.