The pen is mightier...

October 13, 2006

With the backing of Microsoft, researchers at Brown are returning to their inventive roots to fulfil the potential of stylus computing, Stephen Phillips discovers

Pen computing's reputation as the next big thing has become something of an albatross. But a joint venture between Microsoft and Brown University could finally deliver what the technology has long promised.

Pen computing - the operation of a computer, characteristically a tablet PC, using a pen-like stylus to write, sketch or execute commands on screen - has never lacked the wow factor. Programs developed recently by researchers at Brown include Music Notepad, which allows users to write bars of music on screen and have their compositions played back at the stroke of a stylus; MathPad2, which lets people make handwritten mathematical calculations then sketch and animate related diagrams; and ChemPad, which chemistry students and researchers can use to generate 3-D molecular models from chemical notations. In the mid-1990s, Brown developed sketch-recognition software that transforms rudimentary doodles into 3-D figures.

For many people, using a pen is a more intuitive way to interact with a computer than a keyboard or a mouse, says Andy van Dam, professor of computer science at Brown. But mass adoption of pen computing has been hampered by technological hurdles, infrastructural challenges and consumers' reluctance to part with their keyboard and mouse.

To help overcome some of the problems, in March Microsoft provided a three-year $1.2 million (£640,000) grant to launch the Microsoft Center for Research on Pen-Centric Computing. The centre "will help build the buzz and community for what is a fairly major departure from ordinary computing", says van Dam, its director.

Microsoft developed a pen-centric variant of its Windows operating system, Pen Windows, a forerunner of the Windows XP Tablet PC Edition, in the mid-1990s.

In 2001, Bill Gates, Microsoft's chairman, predicted that the tablet PC would be the "most popular form of PC sold in America" within five years.

That statement proved massively overoptimistic, but Gates reiterated his faith last year with a declaration that "most portable machines will be tablets in the future".

But challenges remain. "Character recognition [programming computers to recognise written notation] goes back to the 1950s. The fact that it hasn't been completely solved since then confirms that it is a hard problem," van Dam says.

To interpret users' entries accurately and to come up with contextually appropriate inferences, software algorithms must contain exhaustive vocabularies of possible gestures, characters and command, she says. They must recognise, for example, that scribbling through characters signifies erasure. Decades of incremental improvements in software plus advances in computing performance have addressed limitations, van Dam adds.

But hurdles to mass adoption remain, he says. A better and more extensive infrastructure is needed before conditions are ripe - the provision of wireless internet access is still patchy and laptop battery life rarely exceeds four hours, notes Paul Oka, the senior Microsoft research manager involved in the Brown project. And most tablets employ the pen as little more than a mouse substitute, to activate drop-down menus, for example, rather than providing distinct pen-based capabilities, van Dam says. "A critical mass of compelling applications taking special advantage of the tablet" is needed to boost broader take-up, he says.

In the meantime, schools and universities could be among the vanguard of the technology. Pen computing is recognised as a boon in note-taking, allowing students to scrawl on PowerPoint presentations that are distributed to computers via classroom management systems such as Blackboard, Oka says.

The University of Virginia announced in May that final-year electrical and computer engineering students would be kitted out with tablet PCs to help them design a microprocessor system and to access and annotate presentation slides, thanks to a $69,000 grant from Hewlett-Packard.

Van Dam sees pen computing as a return to the inventive roots of an industry that in some respects has grown staid. "Software developments have been stuck in small evolutionary mode in most applications that people use, and the current computing market is [often] characterised as mature. Pen computing is an opportunity for a paradigm shift," he says.

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