Tom Chi  

The Pen is Mightier… than the mouse?

February 27th, 2004 by Tom Chi :: see related comic

I’m pretty psyched to report that this comic was done completely using Wacom/Tablet technology. Tablets have certainly been in the news in the last year or so, but to date, consumers have been slow to adopt them. I think this is largely because the range of software that is optimized for pen operation is still small. This leaves people trying to use the pen on software that was designed for a mouse, and that experience is suboptimal.While the pen and the mouse seem ostensibly similar as pointing devices, there are some important differences which I noticed while coloring this week’s strip. First off, when it comes to drawing/coloring the pen completely dominates. I think one of the main advantages is that setting a pen down and lifting it up very sensibly maps to starting and stopping the flow of ink. On a mouse you need to hold the button down and while moving the mouse to get ink out, and it feels like two separate actions. Another key difference is that a pen allows you to angle your wrists to allow the drawing of smooth arcs in any direction. This is definitely not true of the mouse, where the range of wrist motion is severely limited by the need to keep the front of the mouse pointing forward. My last observation from this week’s coloring was that for some unknown reason, I found it much easier to select colors when using a pen.

Now outside of the drawing context, the Wacom can also be used like a mouse, and during the past week I’ve tried using it as such with a bit of difficulty. The main issue which kept coming up was click accuracy. When moving the cursor with a pen, the pen tip is held slightly above the surface of the tablet (~1-2cm). This must be done because touching the pad would register as a click. Now the problem arises when you are above a target and you’re ready to click. As your wrist angles down to touch the pen tip to the pad, it travels through a slight arc that makes the cursor drop a bit below the spot you had been hovering over. Sometimes this is an insignificant difference, other times it can be between 10-20 pixels. A difference of that magnitude can easily cause you to miss your target, and it’s frustrating to deal with mis-clicking, primarily becuase I rarely mis-click with a mouse. When you click a mouse button, the mouse stays put (within about 2 pixels), so you can move your cursor over something and have very high confidence that when you click, you will hit the target.

Another difference is that the Pen removes one of the nice advantages that Fitt’s law gives us: the ability to move the cursor quickly and confidently to an edge or a corner of the screen. While corners are some of the easiest places to reach with the mouse, they are the *hardest* places to reach with a pen. This comes into play when I want to summon the start menu or the explorer bar. I can no longer just slide the cursor to the bottom of the screen — I have to aim. The net result was that I ended up using my left hand for task switching and a number of other functions which I typically approach using the mouse.

I believe most of the shortcomings have little to do with the input devices itself and are more due to a lack of pen/tablet targeted software. When the mouse was first introduced to PC, there were very few applications which made use of it. While it was cool to be able to move the pointer around, it wasn’t very useful until applications were written which specifically took advantage of the device. We are at a similar point with the pen/tablet. While it can be credibly used like a mouse in some apps, it will not come into its own until we have a library of software which allows it to shine. Right now that’s mostly just Photoshop. :p

9 Responses to “The Pen is Mightier… than the mouse?”
Elly wrote:

The thing that really annoys me with a pen is that I don’t have the functions I would usually use the middle wheel on a mouse for. Seeing as the main apps that I use are AutoCad, Photoshop, 3Dstudio and Web Browsers I rely quite heavily on the middle wheel for scrolling, panning and zooming. I feel quite hampered by having to do any of these the “long way” around, and while I could get a pen with a wheel on it - they’re a lot of money for something I’m not sure I’d use.

I find this significantly annoying that it far outways the drawing ease I get with the pen simply because I can’t move around the screen as well as I’d like.

So my tablet sits to one side and I continue to use a mouse - with a piece of cardboard stuck to the side to stop my hands cramping.

KC wrote:

I don’t find i have much issue using my pen for photoshop. Maybe that’s because I never used the wheel in the first place and just use hot keys for zooming and for the “hand”.

Right now, I’m using a Toshiba M200 tablet PC(which I just started using for this comic) and I am finding some productivity issues as well but I love being able to draw digitally wherever I go. I will post a full review sometime (not sure when though!)

Bman wrote:

Another reason I dislike the pen for general computing is that it’s very difficult to switch between it and the keyboard. It’s much quicker to move your hand from the mouse to the keyboard to type, than to set down the pen and type (and then have to pick it up again after). And typing with a (rather bulky) Wacom pen in your hand is difficult at best.

Then there’s the issue of extra buttons, as Elly said. That strange right mouse button on the pen is even less precise for aiming than the pen tip, and I have a hell of a time using it for mouse gestures in Opera.

dsandler wrote:

My biggest frustration with digitizing tablets is that the muscle memory I have developed using pen and paper is totally worthless.

While staring at the screen and dragging the pen along the tablet, I am unable to perform the hundreds of tiny microcorrections to place the ink exactly where I want it. I frequently have to “practice” a curve several times (with frequent trips to “Undo”) before I can lay it down “just right”. The link between my hand and my eye is almost totally broken (save for a tiny cursor on the screen, which tells me nothing about the attitude of my hand, wrist, and arm); my hand-eye coordination, sort of an important part of drawing, is destroyed.

Net result: I draw in Photoshop like a first-grader. (I would prefer to draw as I do on paper—that is, like a fifth-grader.)

I see two possible solutions:

(1) track the angle of the pen in three dimensions, and convey that information in the pen cursor [this reminds me of the 3D Widget Library from Brown U’s graphics group] — a very interesting UI and motion-capture problem, probably not practical

(2) move the screen to the tablet, to put the hand in front of your eye again — this exists today, in the form of very expensive LCD tablets

dsandler wrote:

> … in the form of very expensive LCD tablets

… or, of course, similarly-expensive Tablet PCs, as KC mentioned while I was editing my post ;)

KC wrote:

Learning to use Wacom tablets to draw, or even to point, for the first time is like learning to use a mouse for the first time. For the first week that I owned one, I almost threw it out because I was so frustrated about not being able to draw at the level I normally did. But I went back to basics and started practising drawing normal shapes and quickly found my sense of the tablet growing.

Regarding the combination of Wacom and Keyboard, I’m left handed but I use the mouse right handed so I actually use all three input devices in conjunction. In other words, the ONLY time I was using the Wacom was inside Photoshop and the tablet was on my lap. For everything else, I used keyboard and mouse. During PS, I’d also have my right hand on the keyboard undo’ing, deleting, holding shift, etc. An aspect I sorely miss on my Tablet PC btw.

mouse wrote:

hi the comic strips are really awesome!! like KC said that learning to use the wacom tablets to draw is very hard at first. i haven’t used it in a long time because it was so hard! i could not coordinate with looking at the monitor and draw with my hands. maybe i’ll try going back to the basics. and using the pen as a mouse is pretty hard too, especially with right clicks.

Tom Chi wrote:

Over the weekend I drew more and thought about the pen more. I found that when I was just doodling (i.e. having no specific intention to what the final image should be), that the wacom worked just fine. It was only when I tried to draw things with a specific intention (e.g. still life, comics), that it became more difficult.

It’s interesting how people focus on how difficult it is to draw compared to drawing on paper. This is certainly true, but my first thought when using the pen was that it was much much easier than drawing with a mouse. I suppose after months of using the mouse for the comic my expecations were different than most artists. I wonder whether artists who started their artistic endeavours with the wacom or the tablet PC would have a different take? Regardless, it certain is *possible* to make amazing art just using the wacom: http://www.goodbrush.com/

As for hands, when drawing with either mouse or pen, I have my left hand on the keyboard. Besides CNTRL-Z,-X,-C,-V,-E,-T there is I, B, H, M, E, V. I can’t imagine how slow it would be to work in Photoshop without being able to use these keys. If one were to compare the entire process of creating the comic (including color), I would argue that the old way (cell-shading with paint on acetate, or airbrush on artboard) would be considerably slower.

So while the pen is not perfect as an input device (I keep accidentally hitting that right click button), it contributes to an overall approach to working which has some nice advantages over paper.

Mike Keesey wrote:

I’ve been using a pen instead of a mouse for about a year. It takes a little while to become used to it, but once you are, you don’t really think about it much. And I can go back to a mouse without thinking about it, too.

There are a couple of issues, though:
- no middle button
- no scroller

…and the most annoying one to me:
- You have to dock the stylus (or lay it down, or grip it awkwardly) before you can type with both hands.

BUT, I cannnot imagine illustrating in Photoshop without it anymore.


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OK/Cancel is a comic strip collaboration co-written and co-illustrated by Kevin Cheng and Tom Chi. Our subject matter focuses on interfaces, good and bad and the people behind the industry of building interfaces - usability specialists, interaction designers, human-computer interaction (HCI) experts, industrial designers, etc. (Who Links Here) ?