Category Archives: pen input

Invited Talk: WIPTTE 2015 Presentation of Sensing Techniques for Tablets, Pen, and Touch

The organizers of WIPTTE 2015, the Workshop on the Impact of Pen and Touch Technology on Education, kindly invited me to speak about my recent work on sensing techniques for stylus + tablet interaction.

One of the key points that I emphasized:

To design technology to fully take advantage of human skills, it is critical to observe what people do with their hands when they are engaged in manual activites such as handwriting.

Notice my deliberate the use of the plural, hands, as in both of ’em, in a division of labor that is a perfect example of cooperative bimanual action.

The power of crayon and touch.

My six-year-old daughter demonstrates the power of crayon and touch technology.

And of course I had my usual array of stupid sensor tricks to illustrate the many ways that sensing systems of the future embedded in tablets and pens could take advantage of such observations. Some of these possible uses for sensors probably seem fanciful, in this antiquated era of circa 2015.

But in eerily similar fashion, some of the earliest work that I did on sensors embedded in handheld devices also felt completely out-of-step with the times when I published it back in the year 2000. A time so backwards it already belongs to the last millennium for goodness sakes!

Now aspects of that work are embedded in practically every mobile device on the planet.

It was a fun talk, with an engaged audience of educators who are eager to see pen and tablet technology advance to better serve the educational needs of students all over the world. I have three kids of school age now so this stuff matters to me. And I love speaking to this audience because they always get so excited to see the pen and touch interaction concepts I have explored over the years, as well as the new technologies emerging from the dim fog that surrounds the leading frontiers of research.

Harold and the Purple Crayon book coverI am a strong believer in the dictum that the best way to predict the future is to invent it.

And the pen may be the single greatest tool ever invented to harness the immense creative power of the human mind, and thereby to scrawl out–perhaps even in the just-in-time fashion of the famous book Harold and the Purple Crayon–the uncertain path that leads us forward.

                    * * *

Update: I have also made the original technical paper and demonstration video available now.

If you are an educator seeing impacts of pen, tablet, and touch technology in the classroom, then I strongly encourage you to start organizing and writing up your observations for next year’s workshop. The 2016 edition of the series, (now renamed CPTTE) will be held at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, and chaired by none other than the esteemed Andries Van Dam, who is my academic grandfather (i.e. my Ph.D. advisor’s mentor) and of course widely respected in computing circles throughout the world.

Thumbnail - WIPTTE 2015 invited TalkHinckley, K., WIPTTE 2015 Invited Talk: Sensing Techniques for Tablet + Stylus Interaction. Workshop on the Impact of Pen and Touch Technology on Education, Redmond, WA, April 28th, 2015. [Slides (.pptx)] [Slides PDF]



Project: Bimanual In-Place Commands

Here’s another interesting loose end, this one from 2012, which describes a user interface known as “In-Place Commands” that Michel Pahud, myself, and Bill Buxton developed for a range of direct-touch form factors, including everything from tablets and tabletops all the way up to electronic whiteboards a la the modern Microsoft Surface Hub devices of 2015.

Microsoft is currently running a Request for Proposals for Surface Hub research, by the way, so check it out if that sort of thing is at all up your alley. If your proposal is selected you’ll get a spiffy new Surface Hub and $25,000 to go along with it.

We’ve never written up a formal paper on our In-Place Commands work, in part because there is still much to do and we intend to pursue it further when the time is right. But in the meantime the following post and video documenting the work may be of interest to aficionados of efficient interaction on such devices. This also relates closely to the Finger Shadow and Accordion Menu explored in our Pen +Touch work, documented here and here, which collectively form a class of such techniques.

While we wouldn’t claim that any one of these represent the ultimate approach to command and control for direct input, in sum they illustrate many of the underlying issues, the rich set of capabilities we strive to support, and possible directions for future embellishments as well.

Thumbnail for In-Place CommandsKnies, R. In-Place: Interacting with Large Displays. Reporting on research by Pahud, M., Hinckley, K., and Buxton, B. TechNet Inside Microsoft Research Blog Post, Oct 4th, 2012. [Author’s cached copy of post as PDF] [Video MP4] [Watch on YouTube]

In-Place Commands Screen Shot

The user can call up commands in-place, directly where he is working, by touching both fingers down and fanning out the available tool palettes. Many of the functions thus revealed act as click-through tools, where the user may simultaneously select and apply the selected tool — as the user is about to do for the line-drawing tool in the image above.

Watch Bimanual In-Place Commands video on YouTube

Paper: Motion and Context Sensing Techniques for Pen Computing

I continue to believe that stylus input — annotations, sketches, mark-up, and gestures — will be an important aspect of interaction with slate computers in the future, particularly when used effectively and convincingly with multi-modal pen+touch input. It also seems that every couple of years I stumble across an interesting new use or set of techniques for motion sensors, and this year proved to be no exception.

Thus, it should come as no surprise that my latest project has continued to push in this direction, exploring the possibilities for pen interaction when the physical stylus itself is augmented with inertial sensors including three-axis accelerometers, gyros, and magnetometers.


In recent years such sensors have become integrated with all manner of gadgets, including smart phones and tablets, and it is increasingly common for microprocessors to include such sensors directly on the die. Hence in my view of the world, we are just at the cusp of sensor-rich stylus devices becoming  commercially feasible, so it is only natural to consider how such sensors afford new interactions, gestures, or context-sensing techniques when integrated directly with an active (powered) stylus on pen-operated devices.

In collaboration with Xiang ‘Anthony’ Chen and Hrvoje Benko I recently published a paper exploring motion-sensing capabilities for electronic styluses, which takes a first look at some techniques for such a device. With some timely help from Tom Blank’s brilliant devices team at Microsoft Research, we built a custom stylus — fully wireless and powered by an AAAA battery — that integrates these sensors.

These range from very simple but clever things such as reminding the user if they have left behind the pen — a common problem that users encounter with pen-based devices — to fun new techniques that emulate physical media, such as the gesture of striking a loaded brush on one’s finger in water media.


Check out the video below for an overview of these and some of the other techniques we have come up with so far, or read more about it in the technical paper linked below.

We are continuing to work in this area, and have lots more ideas that go beyond what we were able to accomplish in this first stage of the project, so stay tuned for future developments along these lines.

Motion-Context-Pen-thumbHinckley, K., Chen, X., and Benko, H., Motion and Context Sensing Techniques for Pen
In Proc. Graphics Interface 2013 (GI’13).  Canadian Information Processing Society, Toronto, Ont., CanadaRegina, Saskatchewan, Canada, May 29-31, 2013. [PDF] [video – MP4].

Watch Motion and Context Sensing Techniques for Pen Computing video on YouTube

Paper: Implicit Bookmarking: Improving Support for Revisitation in Within-Document Reading Tasks

The March 2013 issue of the International Journal of Human-Computer Studies features a clever new technique for automatically (implicitly) bookmarking recently-visited locations in documents, which (as our paper reveals) eliminates 66% of all long-distance scrolling actions for users in active reading scenarios.

The technique, devised by Chun Yu (Tsinghua University Department of Computer Science and Technology, Beijing, China) in collaboration with  Ravin Balakrishnan, myself, Tomer Moscovish, and Yuanchun Shi, requires only minimal modification of existing scrolling behavior in document readers — in fact, our prototype works by implementing a simple layer on top of the standard Adobe PDF Reader.

The technique would be particularly valuable for students or information workers whose activities necessitate deep engagements with texts such as technical documentation, non-fiction books on e-readers, or– of course, my favorite pastime– scientific papers.

Implicit Bookmarking prototype and studyYu, C., Balakrishnan, R., Hinckley, K., Moscovich, T.,  Shi, Y., Implicit bookmarking: Improving support for revisitation in within-document reading tasks. International Journal of Human-Computer Studies, Vol. 71, Issue 3, March 2013, pp. 303-320. [Definitive Version] [Author’s draft PDF — may contain discrepancies]

Paper: Gradual Engagement between Digital Devices as a Function of Proximity: From Awareness to Progressive Reveal to Information Transfer

I collaborated on a nifty project with the fine folks from Saul Greenberg’s group at the University of Calgary exploring the emerging possibilities for devices to sense and respond to their digital ecology. When devices have fine-grained sensing of their spatial relationships to one another, as well as to the people in that space, it brings about new ways for users to interact with the resulting system of cooperating devices and displays.

This fine-grained sensing approach makes for an interesting contrast to what Nic Marquardt and I explored in GroupTogether, which intentionally took a more conservative approach towards the sensing infrastructure — with the idea in mind that sometimes, one can still do a lot with very little (sensing).

Taken together, the two papers nicely bracket some possibilities for the future of cross-device interactions and intelligent environments.

This work really underscores that we are still largely in the dark ages with regard to such possibilities for digital ecologies. As new sensors and sensing systems make this kind of rich awareness of the surround of devices and users possible, our devices, operating systems, and user experiences will grow to encompass the expanded horizons of these new possibilities as well.

The full citation and the link to our scientific paper are as follows:

Gradual Engagement with devices via proximity sensingMarquardt, N., Ballendat, T., Boring, S., Greenberg, S. and Hinckley, K., Gradual Engagement between Digital Devices as a Function of Proximity: From Awareness to Progressive Reveal to Information Transfer. In Proceedings of ACM Interactive Tabletops & Surfaces (ITS 2012). Boston, MA, USA, November 11-14. 10pp. [PDF] [video – MP4].

Watch the Gradual Engagement via Proximity video on YouTube

Paper: Informal Information Gathering Techniques for Active Reading

This is my latest project, which I will present tomorrow (May 9th) at the CHI 2012 Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems.

I’ll have a longer post up about this project after I return from the conference, but for now enjoy the video. I also link to the PDF of our short paper below which has a nice discussion of the motivation and design rationale for this work.

Above all else, I hope this work makes clear that there is still tons of room for innovation in how we interact with the e-readers and tablet computers of the future– as well as in terms of how we consume and manipulate content to produce new creative works.

Informal Information Gathering Techniques for Active ReadingHinckley, K., Bi, X., Pahud, M., Buxton, B., Informal Information Gathering Techniques for Active Reading. 4pp Note. In Proc. CHI 2012  Conf. on Human Factors in Computing Systems, Austin, TX, May 5-10, 2012. [PDF]

[Watch Informal Information Gathering Techniques for Active Reading on YouTube]

Paper: Enhancing Naturalness of Pen-and-Tablet Drawing through Context Sensing

Context-Sensing Pen with multi-touch and orientation sensorsSun, M. Cao, X., Song, H., Izadi, S., Benko, H., Guimbretiere, F., Ren, X., and Hinckley, K. Enhancing Naturalness of Pen-and-Tablet Drawing through Context Sensing.  In Proc. ACM International Conference on Interactive Tabletops and Surfaces (ITS ’11). ACM, New York, NY, USA,  Kobe, Japan, November 13-16, 2011, pp. 212-221. [PDF] [video – WMV].

Watch Enhancing Naturalness of Pen through Context Sensing video on YouTube