Tag Archives: 2014-paper

Paper: Sensing Techniques for Tablet+Stylus Interaction (Best Paper Award)

It’s been a busy year, so I’ve been more than a little remiss in posting my Best Paper Award recipient from last year’s User Interface Software & Technology (UIST) symposium.

UIST is a great venue, particularly renowned for publishing cutting-edge innovations in devices, sensors, and hardware.

And software that makes clever uses thereof.

Title slide - sensing techniques for stylus + tablet interaction

Title slide from my talk on this project. We had a lot of help, fortunately. The picture illustrates a typical scenario in pen & tablet interaction — where the user interacts with touch, but the pen is still at the ready, in this case palmed in the user’s fist.

The paper takes two long-standing research themes for me — pen (plus touch) interaction, and interesting new ways to use sensors — and smashes them together to produce the ultimate Frankenstein child of tablet computing:

Stylus prototype augmented with sensors

Microsoft Research’s sensor pen. It’s covered in groovy orange shrink-wrap, too. What could be better than that? (The shrink wrap proved necessary to protect some delicate connections between our grip sensor and the embedded circuitry).

And if you were to unpack this orange-gauntleted beast, here’s what you’d find:

Sensor components inside the pen

Components of the sensor pen, including inertial sensors, a AAAA battery, a Wacom mini pen, and a flexible capacitive substrate that wraps around the barrel of the pen.

But although the end-goal of the project is to explore the new possibilities afforded by sensor technology, in many ways, this paper kneads a well-worn old worry bead for me.

It’s all about the hand.

With little risk of exaggeration you could say that I’ve spent decades studying nothing but the hand. And how the hand is the window to your mind.

Or shall I say hands. How people coordinate their action. How people manipulate objects. How people hold things. How we engage with the world through the haptic sense, how we learn to articulate astoundingly skilled motions through our fingers without even being consciously aware that we’re doing anything at all.

I’ve constantly been staring at hands for over 20 years.

And yet I’m still constantly surprised.

People exhibit all sorts of manual behaviors, tics, and mannerisms, hiding in plain sight, that seemingly inhabit a strange shadow-world — the realm of the seen but unnoticed — because these behaviors are completely obvious yet somehow they still lurk just beneath conscious perception.

Nobody even notices them until some acute observer takes the trouble to point them out.

For example:

Take a behavior as simple as holding a pen in your hand.

You hold the pen to write, of course, but most people also tuck the pen between their fingers to momentarily stow it for later use. Other people do this in a different way, and instead palm the pen, in more of a power grip reminiscent of how you would grab a suitcase handle. Some people even interleave the two behaviors, based on what they are currently doing and whether or not they expect to use the pen again soon:

Tuck and Palm Grips for temporarily stowing a pen

Illustration of tuck grip (left) vs. palm grip (right) methods of stowing the pen when it is temporarily not in use.

This seems very simple and obvious, at least in retrospect. But such behaviors have gone almost completely unnoticed in the literature, much less actively sensed by the tablets and pens that we use — or even leveraged to produce more natural user interfaces that can adapt to exactly how the user is currently handing and using their devices.

If we look deeper into these writing and tucking behaviors alone, a whole set of grips and postures of the hand emerge:

Core Pen Grips

A simple design space of common pen grips and poses (postures of the hand) in pen and touch computing with tablets.

Looking even more deeply, once we have tablets that support a pen as well as full multi-touch, users naturally want to used their bare fingers on the screen in combination with the pen, so we see another range of manual behaviors that we call extension grips based on placing one (or more) fingers on the screen while holding the pen:

Single Finger Extension Grips for Touch Gestures with Pen-in-hand

Much richness in “extension” grips, where touch is used while the pen is still being held, can also be observed. Here we see various single-finger extension grips for the tuck vs. the palm style of stowing the pen.

People also exhibited more ways of using multiple fingers on the touchscreen that I expected:

Multiple Finger Extension Grips for Touch Gestures with Pen-in-hand

Likewise, people extend multiple fingers while holding the pen to pinch or otherwise interact with the touchscreen.

So, it began to dawn on us that there was all this untapped richness in terms of how people hold, manipulate, write on, and extend fingers when using pen and touch on tablets.

And that sensing this could enable some very interesting new possibilities for the user interfaces for stylus + tablet computing.

This is where our custom hardware came in.

On our pen, for example, we can sense subtle motions — using full 3D inertial sensors including accelerometer, gyroscope, and magnetometer — as well as sense how the user grips the pen — this time using a flexible capacitive substrate wrapped around the entire barrel of the pen.

These capabilities then give rise to sensor signals such as the following:

Grip and motion sensors on the stylus
Sensor signals for the pen’s capacitive grip sensor with the writing grip (left) vs. the tuck grip (middle). Exemplar motion signals are shown on the right.

This makes various pen grips and motions stand out quite distinctly, states that we can identify using some simple gesture recognition techniques.

Armed with these capabilities, we explored presenting a number of context-appropriate tools.

As the very simplest example, we can detect when you’re holding the pen in a grip (and posture) that indicates that you’re about to write. Why does this matter? Well, if the touchscreen responds when you plant your meaty palm on it, it causes no end of mischief in a touch-driven user interface. You’ll hit things by accident. Fire off gestures by mistake. Leave little “ink turds” (as we affectionately call them) on the screen if the application responds to touch by leaving an ink trace. But once we can sense it’s your palm, we can go a long ways towards solving these problems with pen-and-touch interaction.

To pull the next little rabbit out of my hat, if you tap the screen with the pen in hand, the pen tools (what else?) pop up:

Pen tools appear

Tools specific to the pen appear when the user taps on the screen with the pen stowed in hand.

But we can take this even further, such as to distinguish bare-handed touches — to support the standard panning and zooming behaviors —  versus a pinch articulated with the pen-in-hand, which in this example brings up a magnifying glass particularly suited to detail work using the pen:

Pen Grip + Motion example: Full canvas zoom vs. Magnifier tool

A pinch multi-touch gesture with the left hand pans and zooms. But a pinch articulated with the pen-in-hand brings up a magnifier tool for doing fine editing work.

Another really fun way to use the sensors — since we can sense the 3D orientation of the pen even when it is away from the screen — is to turn it into a digital airbrush:

Airbrush tool using the sensors

Airbrushing with a pen. Note that the conic section of the resulting “spray” depends on the 3D orientation of the pen — just as it would with a real airbrush.

At any rate, it was a really fun project that garnered a best paper award,  and a fair bit of press coverage (Gizmodo, Engadget, & named FastCo Design’s #2 User Interface innovation of 2014, among other coverage). It’s pretty hard to top that.

Unless maybe we do a lot more with all kinds of cool sensors on the tablet as well.


You might just want to stay tuned here. There’s all kinds of great stuff in the works, as always (grin).

Sensing Pen & Tablet Grip+Motion thumbnailHinckley, K., Pahud, M., Benko, H., Irani, P., Guimbretiere, F., Gavriliu, M., Chen, X., Matulic, F., Buxton, B., Wilson, A., Sensing Techniques for Tablet+Stylus Interaction.  In the 27th ACM Symposium on User Interface Software and Technology (UIST’14)  Honolulu, Hawaii, Oct 5-8, 2014, pp. 605-614. http://dx.doi.org/10.1145/2642918.2647379

Watch Context Sensing Techniques for Tablet+Stylus Interaction video on YouTube

Award: CHI Academy, 2014 Inductee

I’ve been a bit remiss in posting this, but as of April 2014, I’m a member of the CHI Academy, which is an honorary group that recognizes leaders in the field of Human-Computer interaction.

Among whom I can apparently I now include myself, strange as that  may seem.

I was completely surprised by this and can honestly say I never expected any special recognition. I’ve just been plugging away on my little devices and techniques, writing papers here and there, but I suppose over the decades it all adds up. I don’t know if this means that my work is especially good or that I’m just getting older, but either way I appreciate the gesture of recognition from my peers in the field.

I was in a bit of a ribald mood when I got the news, so when the award organizers asked me to reply with my bio I decided what the heck and decided to have some fun with it:

Ken Hinckley is a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, where he has spent the last 17 years investigating novel input devices, device form-factors, and modalities of interaction.

He feels fortunate to have had the opportunity to collaborate with many CHI Academy members while working there, including noted trouble-makers such as Bill Buxton, Patrick Baudisch, and Eric Horvitz—as well as George Robertson, whom he owes a debt of gratitude for hiring him fresh out of grad school.

Ken is perhaps best know for his work on sensing techniques, cross-device interaction, and pen computing. He has published over 75 academic papers and is a named inventor on upwards of 150 patents. Ken holds a Ph.D. in Computer Science from the University of Virginia, where he studied with Randy Pausch.

He has also published fiction in professional markets including Nature and Fiction River, and prides himself on still being able to hit 30-foot jump shots at age 44.

Not too shabby.

Now, in the spirit of full disclosure, there are no real perks associated with being a CHI Academy member as far as I’ve been able to figure. People do seem to ask me for reference letters just a tiny bit more frequently. And I definitely get more junk email from organizers of dubious-sounding conferences than before. No need for research heroics if you want a piece of that, just email me and I’d be happy to forward them along.

But the absolute most fun part of the whole deal was a small private celebration that noted futurist Bill Buxton organized at his ultra-modern home fronting Lake Ontario in Toronto, and where I was joined by my Microsoft Research colleagues Abigail Sellen, her husband Richard Harper, and John Tang. Abi is already a member (and an occasional collaborator whom I consider a friend), and Richard and John were inducted along with me into the Academy in 2014.

Bill Buxton needs no introduction among the avant garde of computing. And he’s well known in the design community as well, not to mention publishing on equestrianism and mountaineering, among other topics. In particular, his collection of interactive devices is arguably the most complete ever assembled. Only a tiny fraction of it is currently documented on-line. It contains everything from the world’s first radio and television remote controls, to the strangest keyboards ever conceived by mankind, and even the very first handcrafted wooden computer mice that started cropping up in the 1960’s.

The taxi dropped me off, I rang the doorbell, and when a tall man with rock-star hair gone gray and thinned precipitously by the ravages of time answered the door, I inquired:

“Is this, by any chance, the Buxton Home for Wayward Input Devices?”

To which Bill replied in the affirmative.

I indeed had the right place, I would fit right in here, and he showed me in.

Much of Bill’s collection lives off the premises, but his below-ground sanctum sanctorum was still walled by shelves bursting with transparent tubs packed with handheld gadgets that had arrived far before their time, historical mice and trackballs, and hybrid bastard devices of every conceivable description. And what little space remained was packed with books on design, sketching, and the history of mountaineering and the fur trade.

Despite his home office being situated below grade, natural light poured down into it through the huge front windows facing the inland sea, owing to the home’s modern design. Totally awesome space and would have looked right at home on the front page of Architectural Digest.

Bill showed us his origami kayak on the back deck, treated us all to some hand-crafted martinis in the open-plan kitchen, and arranged for transportation to the awards dinner via a 10-person white stretch limousine. We even made a brief pit stop so Bill could dash out and pick up a bottle of champagne at a package store.

Great fun.

I’ve known Bill since 1994, when he visited Randy Pausch’s lab at the University of Virginia, and ever since people have often assumed that he was my advisor. He never was in any official capacity, but I read all of his papers in that period and in many ways I looked up to him as my research hero. And now that we’ve worked together as colleagues for nearly 10 years (!), and with Randy’s passing, I often do still see him as a mentor.

Or is that de-mentor?

Probably a little bit of each, in all honesty (grin).

Yeah, the award was pretty cool and all, but it was the red carpet thrown out by Bill that I’ll always remember.

Thumbnail - Ken Hinckley CHI Academy 2014 InducteeHinckley, K., CHI Academy. Inducted April 27th, 2014 at CHI 2014 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, for career research accomplishments and service to the ACM SIGCHI community (Association of Computing Machinery’s Special Interest Group on Computer-Human Interaction). [Ken Hinckley CHI Academy Bio] 

The CHI Academy is an honorary group of individuals who have made substantial contributions to the field of human-computer interaction. These are the principal leaders of the field, whose efforts have shaped the disciplines and/or industry, and led the research and/or innovation in human-computer interaction. The criteria for election to the CHI Academy are:

  • Cumulative contributions to the field.
  • Impact on the field through development of new research directions and/or innovations.
  • Influence on the work of others.
  • Reasonably active participant in the ACM SIGCHI community.

Book Chapter: Input/Output Devices and Interaction Techniques, Third Edition

Thumbnail for Computing Handbook (3rd Edition)Hinckley, K., Jacob, R., Ware, C. Wobbrock, J., and Wigdor, D., Input/Output Devices and Interaction Techniques. Appears as Chapter 21 in The Computing Handbook, Third Edition: Two-Volume Set, ed. by Tucker, A., Gonzalez, T., Topi, H., and Diaz-Herrera, J. Published by Chapman and Hall/CRC (Taylor & Francis), May 13, 2014.  [PDF – Author’s Draft – may contain discrepancies]

Paper: LightRing: Always-Available 2D Input on Any Surface

In this modern world bristling with on-the-go-go-go mobile activity, the dream of an always-available pointing device has long been held as a sort of holy grail of ubiquitous computing.

Ubiquitous computing, as futurists use the term, refers to the once-farfetched vision where computing pervades everything, everywhere, in a sort of all-encompassing computational nirvana of socially-aware displays and sensors that can respond to our every whim and need.

From our shiny little phones.

To our dull beige desktop computers.

To the vast wall-spanning electronic whiteboards of a future largely yet to come.

How will we interact with all of these devices as we move about the daily routine of this rapidly approaching future? As we encounter computing in all its many forms, carried on our person as well as enmeshed in the digitally enhanced architecture of walls, desktops, and surfaces all around?

Enter LightRing, our early take on one possible future for ubiquitous interaction.

LightRing device on a supporting surface

By virtue of being a ring always worn on the finger, LightRing travels with us and is always present.

By virtue of some simple sensing and clever signal processing, LightRing can be supported in an extremely compact form-factor while providing a straightforward pointing modality for interacting with devices.

At present, we primarily consider LightRing as it would be configured to interact with a situated display, such as a desktop computer, or a presentation projected against a wall at some distance.

The user moves their index finger, angling left and right, or flexing up and down by bending at the knuckle. Simple stuff, I know.

But unlike a mouse, it’s not anchored to any particular computer.

It travels with you.

It’s a go-everywhere interaction modality.

Close-up of LightRing and hand angles inferred from sensors

Left: The degrees-of-freedom detected by the LightRing sensors. Right: Conceptual mapping of hand movement to the sensed degrees of freedom. LightRing then combines these to support 2D pointing at targets on a display, or other interactions.

LightRing can then sense these finger movements–using a one-dimensional gyroscope to capture the left-right movement, and an infrared sensor-emitter pair to capture the proximity of the flexing finger joint–to support a cursor-control mode that is similar to how you would hold and move a mouse on a desktop.

Except there’s no mouse at all.

And there needn’t even be a desktop, as you can see in the video embedded below.

LightRing just senses the movement of your finger.  You can make the pointing motions on a tabletop, sure, but you can just as easily do them on a wall. Or on your pocket. Or a handheld clipboard.

All the sensing is relative so LightRing always knows how to interpret your motions to control a 2D cursor on a display. Once the LightRing has been paired with a situated device, this lets you point at targets, even if the display itself is beyond your physical reach. You can sketch or handwrite characters with your finger–another scenario we have explored in depth on smartphones and even watches.

The trick to the LightRing is that it can automatically, and very naturally, calibrate itself to your finger’s range of motion if you just swirl your finger. From that circular motion LightRing can work backwards from the sensor values to how your finger is moving, assuming it is constrained to (roughly) a 2D plane. And that, combined with a button-press or finger touch on the ring itself, is enough to provide an effective input device.

The LightRing, as we have prototyped it now, is just one early step in the process. There’s a lot more we could do with this device, and many more practical problems that would need to be resolved to make it a useful adjunct to everyday devices–and to tap its full potential.

But my co-author Wolf Kienzle and I are working on it.

And hopefully, before too much longer now, we’ll have further updates on even more clever and fanciful stuff that we can do through this one tiny keyhole into this field of dreams, the verdant golden country of ubiquitous computing.


LightRing thumbnailKienzle, W., Hinckley, K., LightRing: Always-Available 2D Input on Any Surface. In the 27th ACM Symposium on User Interface Software and Technology (UIST 2014), Honolulu, Hawaii, Oct. 5-8, 2014, pp. 157-160. [PDF] [video.mp4 TBA] [Watch on YouTube]

Watch LightRing video on YouTube

Paper: Experimental Study of Stroke Shortcuts for a Touchscreen Keyboard with Gesture-Redundant Keys Removed

Text Entry on Touchscreen Keyboards: Less is More?

When we go from mechanical keyboards to touchscreens we inevitably lose something in the translation. Yet the proliferation of tablets has led to widespread use of graphical keyboards.

You can’t blame people for demanding more efficient text entry techniques. This is the 21st century, after all, and intuitively it seems like we should be able to do better.

While we can’t reproduce that distinctive smell of hot metal from mechanical keys clacking away at a typewriter ribbon, the presence of the touchscreen lets keyboard designers play lots of tricks in pursuit of faster typing performance. Since everything is just pixels on a display it’s easy to introduce non-standard key layouts. You can even slide your finger over the keys to shape-write entire words in a single swipe, as pioneered by Per Ola Kristensson and Shumin Zhai (their SHARK keyboard was the predecessor for Swype and related techniques).

While these type of tricks can yield substantial performance advantages, they also often demand a substantial investment in skill acquisition from the user before significant gains can be realized. In practice, this limits how many people will stick with a new technique long enough to realize such gains. The Dvorak keyboard offers a classic example of this: the balance of evidence suggests it’s slightly faster than QWERTY, but the high cost of switching to and learning the new layout just isn’t worth it.

In this work, we explored the performance impact of an alternative approach that builds on people’s existing touch-typing skills with the standard QWERTY layout.

And we do this in a manner that is so transparent, most people don’t even realize that anything is different at first glance.

Can you spot the difference?

Snap quiz time


What’s wrong with this keyboard?  Give it a quick once-over. It looks familiar, with the standard QWERTY layout, but do you notice anything unusual? Anything out of place?

Sure, the keys are arranged in a grid rather than the usual staggered key pattern, but that’s not the “key” difference (so to speak). That’s just an artifact of our quick ‘n’ dirty design of this research-prototype keyboard for touchscreen tablets.

Got it figured out?

All right. Pencils down.

Time to check your score. Give yourself:

  • One point if you noticed that there’s no space bar.
  • Two points if you noticed that there’s no Enter key, either.
  • Three points if the lack of a Backspace key gave you palpitations.
  • Four points and a feather in your cap if you caught the Shift key going AWOL as well.

Now, what if I also told you removing four essential keys from this keyboard–rather than harming performance–actually helps you type faster?


All we ask of people coming to our touchscreen keyboard is to learn one new trick. After all, we have to make up for the summary removal of Space, Backspace, Shift, and Enter somehow. We accomplish this by augmenting the graphical touchscreen keyboard with stroke shortcuts, i.e. short straight-line finger swipes, as follows:marking-menu-overlay-5

  • Swipe right, starting anywhere on the keyboard, to enter a Space.
  • Swipe left to Backspace.
  • Swipe upwards from any key to enter the corresponding shift-symbol. Swiping up on the a key, for example, enters an uppercase A; stroking up on the 1 key enters the ! symbol; and so on.
  • Swipe diagonally down and to the left for Enter.



In addition to possible time-motion efficiencies of the stroke shortcuts themselves, the introduction of these four gestures–and the elimination of the corresponding keys made redundant by the gestures–yields a graphical keyboard with number of interesting properties:

  • Allowing the user to input stroke gestures for Space, Backspace, and Enter anywhere on the keyboard eliminates fine targeting motions as well as any round-trips necessary for a finger to acquire the corresponding keys.
  • Instead of requiring two separate keystrokes—one to tap Shift and another to tap the key to be shifted—the Shift gesture combines these into a single action: the starting point selects a key, while the stroke direction selects the Shift function itself.
  • Removing these four keys frees an entire row on the keyboard.
  • Almost all of the numeric, punctuation, and special symbols typically relegated to the secondary and tertiary graphical keyboards can then be fit in a logical manner into the freed-up space.
  • Hence, the full set of characters can fit on one keyboard while holding the key size, number of keys, and footprint constant.
  • By having only a primary keyboard, this approach affords an economy of design that simplifies the interface, while offering further potential performance gains via the elimination of keyboard switching costs—and the extra key layouts to learn.
  • Although the strokes might reduce round-trip costs, we expect articulating the stroke gesture itself to take longer than a tap. Thus, we need to test these tradeoffs empirically.


Our studies demonstrated that overall the removal of four keys—rather than coming at a cost—offers a net benefit.

Specifically, our experiments showed that a stroke keyboard with the gesture-redundant keys removed yielded a 16% performance advantage for input phrases containing mixed-case alphanumeric text and special symbols, without sacrificing error rate. We observed these performance advantages from the first block of trials onward.

Even in the case of entirely lowercase text—that is, in a context where we would not expect to observe a performance benefit because only the Space gesture offers any potential advantage—we found that our new design still performed as well as a standard graphical keyboard. Moreover, people learned the design with remarkable ease: 90% wanted to keep using the method, and 80% believed they typed faster than on their current touchscreen tablet keyboard.

Notably, our studies also revealed that it is necessary to remove the keys to achieve these benefits from the gestural stroke shortcuts. If both the stroke shortcuts and the keys remain in place, user hesitancy about which method to use undermines any potential benefit. Users, of course, also learn to use the gestural shortcuts much more quickly when they offer the only means of achieving a function.

Thus, in this context, less is definitely more in achieving faster performance for touchscreen QWERTY keyboard typing.

The full results are available in the technical paper linked below. The paper contributes a careful study of stroke-augmented keyboards, filling an important gap in the literature as well as demonstrating the efficacy of a specific design; shows that removing the gesture-redundant keys is a critical design choice; and that stroke shortcuts can be effective in the context of multi-touch typing with both hands, even though previous studies with single-point stylus input had cast doubt on this approach.

Although our studies focus on the immediate end of the usability spectrum (as opposed to longitudinal studies over many input sessions), we believe the rapid returns demonstrated by our results illustrate the potential of this approach to improve touchscreen keyboard performance immediately, while also serving to complement other text-entry techniques such as shape-writing in the future.

Stroke-Keyboard-GI-2014-thumbArif, A. S., Pahud, M., Hinckley, K., and Buxton, B.,  Experimental Study of Stroke Shortcuts for a Touchscreen Keyboard with Gesture-Redundant Keys Removed In Proc. Graphics Interface 2014 (GI’14).  Canadian Information Processing Society, Toronto, Ont., CanadaMontreal, Quebec, Canada, May 7-9, 2014. Received the Michael A. J. Sweeney Award for Best Student Paper.  [PDF] [Talk Slides (.pptx)] [Video .MP4] [Video .WMV]

Watch A Touchscreen Keyboard with Gesture-Redundant Keys Removed video on YouTube