Why can't I write in this title box? With a pen?
November 5, 2011 6:35 PM   Subscribe

Tablets and handwriting recognition. What's the deal?

One thing that I've noticed with the advent of tablet computing--which is to say the iPad and it's imitators--is the distinct lack of handwriting recognition. Sure, there are some apps out there, and strangely thick styluses (a result of the capacitive screen?) for sale, but I'm curious as to the lack of these types of programs/hardware as the default input, or at least an input that is emphasized.

Seems to me that using an iPad as a replacement for a legal pad is its destiny, but what's holding that up? Is it a hardware not being up to snuff? The software? What challenges does that type of interface present that just hasn't been addressed that would make tabletmakers decide to not bother (at least outside of third party apps)? Seems to me that the advances in voice recognition have come along faster than handwriting recognition, yet that, from my layman's perspective, seems like the heavier lift. Any thoughts?
posted by Weebot to Computers & Internet (10 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Well, I have an Asus Slate eee, which is a Windows 7 tablet (so not really an iPad imitator - it's an actual PC with a touch screen and costs about double what the iPad does), and the handwriting recognition rocks. Really - I can just scribble stuff and it knows exactly what I am writing. It uses a Wacom digitizer though, which is the standard for folks who draw using computers.

It has a capacitive screen, but I think the digitizer makes all the difference in how the handwriting recognition performs. I think that Wacom's technology doesn't come super-cheap, and when you're making a tablet that you believe will be primarily used for accessing content rather than creating it, you don't put your money into software that facilitates content creation.

So my vote is that this is a purely business decision based on finding the sweet spot in functionality and price.
posted by jeoc at 6:48 PM on November 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

I am *totally* with you on this! Seems to me that excellent handwriting recognition on a tablet would be a killer app. Last time I posted about this people talked about how difficult it is and point to the Newton, but that was years ago. Look how far voice recognition software has come. Obviously, I don't know what I'm talking about, but handwriting recognition can't be that much harder, can it?
posted by jasper411 at 6:49 PM on November 5, 2011

Handwriting recognition is a Hard Problem, hence Graffiti on Palm Pilots, which is a restricted set of glyphs necessary to make handwriting recognition manageable. That is, it's much easier when everybody has the same style of handwriting.

Apparently Apple has a handwriting recognition facility called Inkwell, have you looked into that at all?
posted by rhizome at 6:57 PM on November 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

I've had winXP, Vista & Win7 tablets. Handwriting recognition was pretty good with XP, and has since become progressively more awesome, despite my artistic chicken scratch. Finger/capacitive touches are improved as well.
posted by kellyblah at 7:43 PM on November 5, 2011

Mrs. Mmascolino has a Fujitsu win7 tablet and the handwriting recognition works pretty well.
posted by mmascolino at 8:39 PM on November 5, 2011

Two things I can suggest:

1. Jobs absolutely refused to create a tablet with a stylus: in his bio he says something to the effect that "We already have ten styluses".

2. Patents. Handwriting recognition is fraught with patent claims, that's why Palm had to get rid of their Graffiti unistroke handwriting system. Oddly enough the pre-Jobs Newton supported Graffiti as an alternate form of input.
posted by furtive at 9:34 PM on November 5, 2011

One of the problems with using a stylus for handwriting recognition on a capacitive screen device like an iPad is where do you rest your hand? The screen senses the presence of your hand if you rest it in a normal way, and hovering is really awkward. Newtons had resistive screens. As for the recognition itself, the Newton was pretty good by the end, and the predictive correction that is built into IOS would make it better. Apple still owns the tech (Inkwell, as mentioned above) so I don't think it's a patent issue for them at least.

I suspect that it is one of those things that seems like a better idea than it is -- most people just don't write fast enough or well enough to make it a killer app. PDAs used styluses and handwriting recognition because it was the best thing available at the time, not because it was ideal for most uses. I suspect that the future lies more in the direction of Siri.
posted by Quinbus Flestrin at 10:33 PM on November 5, 2011

One thing that I've noticed with the advent of tablet computing--which is to say the iPad and it's imitators--is the distinct lack of handwriting recognition.

I think the answer to your question is revealed in your perceptions here. Handwriting-based tablet computers have been around for over six years (I'm using one), yet you call the ipad johnny-come-lately the advent of tablets. And there's your answer.

The reason the ipad is your advent of tablets is because handwriting didn't turn out to be the kind of killer app you'd think it would be. Other things were more important to you. If handwriting was a killer app, your advent of tablet computing would have been six years ago, and the ipad wouldn't really be able to compete very well.

Handwriting (whether pen and paper, or electronic) is slow. Typing is fast. The stylus is unbeatable when it comes to graphics/art/sketch/doodle work, but that is a niche audience. When it comes to taking notes, the stylus is better in some situations, and worse in others. In other words, it's not a clear winner. It has advantages but it doesn't always steam-roll all before it.

If handwriting is a killer app for you, then there are devices that you might like.

If you want to have your cake and eat it too (ie you want ipad-like multi-touch and you also want wacom-like pen precision, both in the same device), then that is something that is only recently starting to appear, and currently costs a lot more than a ipad, because it involves twice as much digitizer hardware. (I think it has a cost in physical bulk too. Part of the ipad's appeal is being slim and lightweight. The more you add to the device, the more you detract from those qualities)
posted by -harlequin- at 5:18 AM on November 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

I agree with harlequin -- typing is just way faster than handwriting, especially for those of us who type all day and handwrite something maybe once a week.

As for why the iPad doesn't have handwriting recognition: Apple spent tens of millions of dollars on handriting recognition for the Newton. It was revolutionary for its time, but didn't really work well enough to sell, and arguably caused the entire Newton line to fail. The goal of the iPad was to make something almost completely different from the Newton, and it's been pretty successful.

I'm sure iOS and Android will get handwriting recognition eventually (probably when the chips in these devices are fast enough to make it run really smoothly). It may take a few years though.
posted by miyabo at 10:38 AM on November 6, 2011

look up the (sadly, but only recently) discontinued HP TM2T...an awesome convertible laptop.
basically...there are two technologies in play: capacitive touch and active digitizer. capacitive touch is used in all your cellphones, the ipad, and most, if not all tablets...it senses where your finger is touching the screen, doesn't require a stylus, but is not super-accurate, location-wise...it's like finger painting. and then there's active digitizers which require a stylus (that contains a coil...it's similar to anti-shoplifting tags), doesn't react to touch, and is super-accurate...most models include a pressure-sensive coil in the stylus that allow you to make realistic brushstrokes, and some models can even tell which angle you are holding the pen at (to simulate a square-tipped magic marker or palette knife, for example).
both of these technologies can be combined in the same screen (and it's awesome!), allowing you to use touch for navigation and pen for precise input. when the pen comes near the screen (within about 1/4'') the touch is deactivated, so you can lean your hand on the screen (in photoshop, for example, its pretty seamless...i can draw with the pen and then use my fingers to zoom in/out, rotate, select tolls, etc). with a capacitive-only screen (like the ipad) if you are using a second-party stylus (which is mostly a fake finger, a bit of rubber on a stick, and not pressure-sensitive), you can't even rest your hand on the screen without fubaring your input.
handwriting recognition is (as has been noted) a Hard Problem, but one that's prety much been solved (win 7 rocks it!)...the thing about handwriting is, though, that you need a pen. otherwise it's all 'hi! i can finger-paint the alphabet!'...not terribly useful.
if you're looking for a tablet that can do handwriting, you're probably looking at one of the newer (and usually a bit bigger) windows 7 slates, or the samsung galaxy note (link is to engadget...if you haven't checked it out, do. they have lots of coverage of pen/stylus based tablets, computers, phones, etc)
but yeah...your pretty much only going to find it on windows :( ...although the next version of android (ice cream sandwich) features native stylus support and handwriting.
posted by sexyrobot at 11:43 AM on November 6, 2011

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