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Why handwriting recognition on the iPad isn't a joke anymore

Michael Simon | Jan. 19, 2016
With the success of the Apple Pencil for the iPad Pro, could handwriting recognition be in the cards for iOS?

Pencil sharpener

While handwriting recognition isn’t baked into iOS like it was with Newton, the underlying technology certainly hasn’t languished over the past two decades. With the Newton, it was completely software driven, but modern digital ink relies as much on the instrument as it does on the implementation.

“Devices for decades have never lived up to the expectations of the end users,” said Gary Baum, vice president of marketing at MyScript, which offers an array of handwriting recognition apps for iOS and announced a partnership with Wacom at CES to power the ink-to-text technology in Bamboo Spark. “The stylus itself needs to be as good as a pen or pencil. If it doesn’t work well it’s probably the most frustrating thing.”

Nearly every tablet platform uses a proprietary writing instrument to implement some version of handwriting recognition—Microsoft’s Surface Pen, Samsung’s S-Pen, even HP has the Executive Tablet Pen for its HP EliteBook Revolve 810 G2—but until the iPad Pro, Apple frowned upon styli, smart or otherwise. But it made a great one with Apple Pencil, and if handwriting recognition is something that’s eventually planned for iOS, Apple hit all the right marks.

“We’re seeing a tremendous focus on the stylus, because it’s the last real man-machine interface that is natural and expressive and creative,” Baum said. “No one wants to carry paper anymore; you can’t search it, you can’t store it easily. It’s kind of like Siri—once you use it you never want to go back.”

What makes handwriting recognition so difficult to get right is the same thing that harpooned Newton and makes Siri so frustrating at times: the lack of understanding.

Ink block

But while today’s styli are a million times better than the one that shipped with the MessagePad, the pen is not mightier than the software. What makes handwriting recognition so difficult to get right is the same thing that harpooned Newton and makes Siri so frustrating at times: the lack of understanding. It’s a problem MyScript is still working on, but it’s one that Baum believes will be solved by changing the way our devices handle our handwriting.

“Today most people who write notes either leave them in ink or retype them,” he said. “The next generation of ink management is interactive. With a couple of simple gestures I’ll be able to do anything I can do with my keyboard—insert, edit, change, delete characters. With a tap I can convert it all into something that’s fully digital and easily shared. The benefit is that you go back and forth between digital and ink.”

It all sounds like something straight out of Cupertino. To hear Baum describe the still-in-development technology makes the iPad Pro sound like the perfect device to lead the next breakthrough in handwriting recognition. In fact, over the past few months (coinciding with the release of iPad Pro), MyScript has seen twice as much interest in its proprietary developer tools, and Baum expects that trend to continue as Apple Pencil pushes the stylus back into the mainstream.

 

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