Touch & Write: surface computing with touch and pen input

We received an email the other day from a group called DFKI touting their new surface computing system called Touch & Write. My initial reaction was “eh, probably just a copy of Microsoft Surface.” Didn’t really excite me, but I kept an open mind and checked out their demo. I will state right here, right now, my first impulse was dead wrong.

I just watched their YouTube video and comparing it to videos I’ve seen of Microsoft Surface, I think Touch & Write crushes that experience. It’s the same basic concept, a big tabletop screen with multi-touch input, but Touch & Write adds a critical element: pen input. More thoughts and their video after the jump.


One of the issues noticed with surface computing is the tendency for users to congregate on one side of the device because the text displays along that orientation. It’s like if you took your computer monitor and laid it down facing up. You would be able to see it from 360 ° but you wouldn’t want to read it or enter text that way. That’s where the pen input comes in.

You’re sitting around a table with people brainstorming, you’d just jot things down and not worry about text orientation. Touch & Write brings that experience to touch computing. Pen input is possible on Microsoft Surface too, but as far as I know, it doesn’t have a dedicated pen input system like the Touch & Write.


Digital Pen

What makes Touch & Write unique, is the integration of a digital pen along with the standard infrared-camera based multi-touch metaphor. This is done using the Anoto digital pen technology. The Anoto technology allows the pen to analyze a unique and to the human eye almost invisible dot pattern that is printed on the paper. A camera mounted in the top of the pen sees this pattern and calculates the exact pen position. Note that pen-gestures and handwriting can thus be resolved much more precisely than with an IR-camera.

That’s active pen recognition, similar to the active digitizer in Wacom penabled and N-Trig equipped Tablet PCs, as opposed to passive recognition, which treats a pen tip no differently than a fingertip. And since it works with the multi-touch IR input, it allows people to write things on different parts of the screen simultaneously. They paired that with MyScript handwriting recognition to create what appears to be a seamless user experience. This is the surface computing experience I would want in my house.


Of course, if you’ve read my previous opinions or know anything about me, you know I’m a pen input fanatic. Obviously, a lot of people aren’t going to share my enthusiasm over this. But if you’ve ever had to sit down with people at the collaboration table, I think you’ll recognize how well this system matches that experience. I really appreciate the approach they’ve taken, and I look forward to seeing where else it will go.