The nib cursor

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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Taken on October 19, 2010