The Future of Pen Input Tech

After reading through the many wonderful stories in the “What got you into Tablet PCs?” thread, I was wracking my brain trying to think of my own. But it dawned on me that there was no initial epiphany for me—I just always thought of ‘computing’ as tablet use.

Even today, I can’t quite shake the feeling that keyboards bring you subtly apart from your work, while the pen, closer to it. Still perplexing is the modern concept of the “notebook” computer: is it not strange this means a laptop, instead of something you hold in the hand and write on?

The trajectory for this most expressive and ubiquitous medium has always seemed oddly stunted in tech. On the ex-forum, I remember sharing this video with excitement:

Finally! I thought, some long-overdue recognition of the tactile dimension of pen input, a recognition of the hand-eye connection in learning and ideation.

That was 10 years ago. Now the closest thing we have is the Surface Slim Pen haptic motor—so obscure that I wonder if even the devs in the initial demo remember putting it in.

What gets me is not the lack of hardware advancement per se, but the slow withering of any seeming impulse in the industry to innovate:

Does anyone remember the Sensu Brush?

A simple passive stylus, that made waves for its unique goal of bringing a soft bristle feel to the tablet experience. That came out before the era of the Apple Pencil.

Now as active-capacitive technology has matured, we don’t hear of any company trying to add extra dimensionality to the iPad digitizer. Where is the industry’s drive to go beyond and explore, all the passion that fuelled the initial iPad art rage?

We’ve long joked about the 30-year stagnation in Wacom EMR tech, but it’s evident that even the new entries from Huion and XP-Pen only seek to imitate. For better or worse, we are stuck in a pen input time capsule.

So I put it to you guys, is there room for meaningful advancement in pen tech?

If not, why do you think they digital pen never caught on, even when most people still used pad and paper in the 80-90s? And paradoxically, if the pen really is a relic, why has it proven so difficult to kill off even in 2023?


Thanks for sharing this.

I still believe it is two things:

  1. because the software capability has never met the right hardware. I’ve written before about Franklin Covey’s Tablet Planner that came out with the original Tablet PCs. You could keep your paper planner experience and link it to your outlook calendar, recognize your handwriting as text or not, and even the to do lists were “dynamic” - cross it off and it moved to the bottom of the list. The hardware was too slow and battery life too short, so it never really caught fire.

  2. Second, the PC/desktop/keyboard interface still drives most business productivity settings and inking spreadsheets is just not as efficient.

Not sure why it never caught fire with the art crowd. Resolution?


I think the main thing with the art crowd has been more to do with hardware and software working together as well. For the longest time, if you were a serious artist, and wanted to do it digitally, you used a large Wacom tablet or pen display connected to a fully powered PC or Mac. Photoshop wasn’t available on anything other than PC or MacOS, and if you were a professional, Photoshop is what you used, or at least one of the Adobe art products. Mac didn’t offer a pen for anything other than iPad, and Windows pen offerings couldn’t match Wacom for accuracy needed in the art world. There were a few exceptions over the years that offered EMR pens, but mainly they were before 2 in 1s became truly portable and gave truly all day battery, and still didn’t compete with a desktop’s power, and couldn’t provide the screen real estate that a pen display could.

Even now, with Photoshop and Illustrator on the iPad, it’s an uphill battle for a true professional artist to use that as a primary device. Android is even worse in that regard, and Samsung, the lone holdout for Wacom for Windows tablets still doesn’t really compete with a pen display and desktop setup.

I would love advancement in pen tech for art though. A realistic brush with multiple pressure sensitive bristles that each provide their own info for pressure and location to the tablet would be amazing. It also sounds extremely hard to program and produce and even if it sold like wildfire, would likely not be very profitable.


There used to be something that would have been perfect to be paired with the sensu brush. Remember the long dead Nvidia Direct Stylus tech? It was the technology baked into the also long dead Nvidia Shield tablet series, where you could use a simple capacity stylus to “fake” pressure sensitive.

It had palm recognition and also the ability to calculate the contact area of the stylus on the screen, the stylus had a soft pointy tip so if you press harder, the tip is deformed and make bigger contact area and make thicker lines. Someone tried sensu brush on it, and the stylus made varied like exactly based on contact, unlike a normal touchscreen that only made an uniform line. In their custom Dabbler app, they could also do pressure opacity emulation based on contact area. And as said in this video, they did it for half the cost of a Samsung tablet.

This could have been a perfectly affordable way to add decent stylus to budget phones, but unfortunately the tech never take off. Despite the Terga chip being used in a few devices, they never enable this tech on anything new and the tech had been long dead. The lack of stylus support in the Nintendo switch was especially a missed opportunity considering they used terga chips, and people had to resort to clunky dongle third party stylus for art game.


Man, the 90’s was a fun time…all the possibilities of what could have been for pen-based computing.

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It has always been about the right software - much of which never materialized or got optimized.

Decided to shift gears and pontificate on this topic, if you’ll indulge me a little. :wink:

I’m still baffled at how pen input got completely sidelined in the 90s. Jake Weidmann’s TEDtalk reminded me how pen input has always been the facilitator of human creativity:

If computers are the fundamental tool of creation in the 21st century, surely the pen would have a place.

Yet countless attempts across multiple operating systems and form-factors still has produced an awkward UX in modern machines: at odds with the keyboard & mouse, yet not fully integrated with the mobile touchscreen.

Again baffling…as pen and tablet is arguably humanity’s first physical “UI”.

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9 years ago
Very unfortunate how this turned out. Palm rejection is very hit or miss, and the eraser mode activation is not predictable. A k1 variant with more cycles available to dedicate to the software detection algorithm may produce very active stylus like results, but currently, the tegra note is not really a competitor for even the aging note 8. I dont regret my purchase, but for art and writing, workarounds aplenty are still needed.

It seems it wasn’t as great as it seemed. That Nvidia dropped it and Nintendo didn’t take it up says quite a bit.

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