Musings

Touch-screen handwriting

Writing on a touch screen without an implement is pretty difficult. I do applaud the research and work that has brought us thus far, but I am curious why the current solution seems to be settled on finger painting instead of some closer approximation to hand writing.

At present

You can only use one fingertip to write on tablets, and most apps preserve multi-touch for other gestures (such as Paper). I do know that the development of realistic drawing tools is quite difficult, from experience with a recent iOS project, but I think just as critical as the representation of the tool (pen, pencil, paint) is the experience you have executing it. In the Paper app, for example, the watercolor tool is easily controlled with one finger, but I can’t say the same for the pencil.

Have you ever desperately written with just a sliver of pencil lead? Back in my school days, I can remember times when the pencil lead might break and without a sharpener at hand, I would try to finish up by managing the ¼ inch of hope I had left between my thumb and index pinched together. It wasn’t the most comfortable, but looking at this example, it provides a little insight into the nature of controlled handwriting. An implement might soon be archaic, but the way we hold it is more important than the lead or ink it holds. The quite literal reduction of the implement itself helps demonstrate the mechanics of writing.

How we write

Hold an invisible pencil in your hand right now and draw an invisible square. What difference do you feel in your fingers between the upward stroke, downward stroke, or drawing the horizontal sides of the square? Writing with an implement is an act of pressing and yielding between two fingers. Once you involve multiple muscles, and this counter balance, you allot for much more control.
20131123-171623.jpgAbove: pardon the sloppy illustration, it was done with only one finger.

Why not process touch handwriting as an averaged position between two touch points? You could use your imaginary pencil on a touch screen, but instead of executing a default multi-touch gesture like dragging or zooming, the handwriting-specific app would draw on the canvas at a point between the two fingers.

A step further

You could even get more advanced and presume that the closer the points are together, the finer the line should be, and the further apart the more broad. Let’s return to the invisible pencil. Place your fingers on the table or surface nearest you and pretend you’re trying to draw a very tiny square with this little pencil. Then imagine you are trying to shade in a large area with the broad side of the lead. The first scenario will likely have your finger tips squeezing close together, and the latter might still have them pressed together of course, but opening outward as if to tilt the pencil (bringing their touch points with the table further apart).

Disclaimer

These are just my silly observations of an afternoon, and I have not done my homework on existing methods of writing of screen, but I from my experience I have only seen apps that use a single point for drawing. These apps can only suggest a stylus for users that want more precision. I see nothing wrong with that, and maybe it’s the most natural solution (compared to squeezing an imaginary pencil), but it’s not always the most convenient — again, it could be just me, but I tend to lose accessories. In any case, I do hope someone out there finds this useful.

Keep innovating! Developers are accomplishing amazing things in the fidelity of realistic drawing tools. I’d like to see some alternatives to the way we use things too.

Post script
Even with natural control of an implement, I think most of our handwriting is a lost cause these days. Here’s what this post evolved from ;)
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