The nib cursor

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    I love my iPad, but the finger-only interface has been a continuing frustration for me. As an artist and designer, I want to do things that I can easily do with a pen and paper, like write, scribble and sketch. But these are not things we typically do with our fingers, any more than we eat soup or salad with our fingers.

    Apple apologists will say that you can sketch and write with the iPad, and indeed we can. Yes, and indeed we can also eat salad or even soup without utensils if it's absolutely necessary. But that's not ideal, is it? Over the years we've developed tools, like forks, spoons, knives and yes, pens, that make life easier. We should expect no less from our interface designers.

    This morning I participated in a stimulating discussion on twitter with user experience designers @docbaty, @daveixd, @mojoguzzi and @fred_beecher that left me thinking -- could we solve this problem without changing the hardware? And indeed I think we can.

    The problem that a pen solves (beyond carrying ink around) is that it gives the user the ability to "see where they are going." Using your finger to draw on the iPad, or even one of the many styli that are available, has the tendency to hide the point of the virtual "pen," thus hiding the path.

    Now imagine an interface that allows you to use the natural gesture you use to write with a pen or pencil, and gives you a point that you can see. Suddenly you can see where you are going and the primary problem is solved.

    One of the things that occurred to me this morning -- which led to this insight -- was that when Apple first "virtualized" the keyboard by adding it to the software interface instead of the hardware, there was a lot of initial resistance. I was one of those resisters. I couldn't imagine using a phone without a physical keyboard. But over time, I learned to use the virtual keyboard and now I appreciate the additional flexibility that this interface gives me: to have more screen or less as the case demands.

    Why not do the same with the stylus? A "virtualized pen" would answer most of my gripes and over time I would probably come to love it. I might even stop carrying a pen and paper around. And that would be an interface I could fall in love with.

    Update: Chris Fahey was inspired by this sketch and did some excellent explorations taking it to the next level, which you can check out here.

    Update: A post on the technical challenges and how they might be overcome by Jazzmasterson here.

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    Lloyd Davis, Cennydd, jibbajabba, and 20 other people added this photo to their favorites.

    1. jibbajabba 54 months ago | reply

      it's an interesting solution, dave. i don't ever want to draw with my fingers though. it'll never be perfect if you can't use a pressure sensitive nib that resembles and is as small as a pen tip. the iclooly i use is good enough for most sketches. but i still prefer paper.

    2. Chris Risdon 54 months ago | reply

      Very interesting - since one of the main problems with styli is the need to have a large target of capacitive material, which greatly reduces the precision.

      But there could be some learning curve having your 'point' be flat and protruding away from your fingers - when you want to just 'place' your point in a precise location, there would need to be an estimation of that location. OR you need to 'engage' the curser first (by touching your two pinched fingers in 'writing style') and then precisely place the curser point.

      The drawing app could easily switch - one finger is normal finger tip draw, and the two pinched fingers engages the nib cursor.

      A simple drawing app - in the vein of Adobe Ideas - that used this curser would be a fun experiment.

    3. fueledbycoffee 54 months ago | reply

      Love the idea, Dave. I use the Pogo stylus with Autodesk Sketchbook. Not perfect, but there's no way I could draw anything reasonable otherwise... some examples. Wonder what it would be like to use a stylus WITH the virtual stylus?

    4. bolinhanyc 54 months ago | reply

      For people who want to continue working on this, I set up a google group.
      Let's turn ideas into execution:

    5. Mike Rohde 54 months ago | reply

      Pogo stylus feels like drawing with a mushy pea on a stick for me. Actually, the new Griffin stylus isn't bad, but it's large enough to obscure the point as Dave notes here.

      Could there be a way to make a pointed stylus that's soft and yet works properly? Seems like every physical solution requires a soft, blunt tip.

    6. Joe Oviedo 54 months ago | reply

      Now that is a great idea. I havent been sketching for long on my iPad, but I can see clearly some of the challenges expressed here, and I mean you are the experts... so I am in.. virtualize it...

    7. ursonate 54 months ago | reply

      it reminds me of holding a small piece of conte or charcoal which would make it easier to sketch. my only problem is i would lose something that small in about 2 minutes. maybe it could connect to a stretchy necklace or something, or a bracelet.

    8. dgray_xplane 54 months ago | reply

      Charlene, you can't lose it because it's not real, it's a cursor on the screen. Limited to expressing these ideas in 2 dimensions.

      ~ Commented with Flickr Studio for iPad

    9. ursonate 54 months ago | reply

      oh! I probably should read the text ;)

    10. A-doubleline 54 months ago | reply

      ah -how many magic wands would we need?

    11. vonlogan 41 months ago | reply

      The best stylus for seeing what you are drawing is the DAGi stylus. I prefer the P504 .
      There are some cool videos of them on YouTube.

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