30 Year Affair with Pen Computing

I’ve had a 30-year affair with pen computing technology, although good handwriting recognition has always eluded me. And now another generation of device comes along to tempt me…

I have always had a keen interest in pen computing (or even a passion, perhaps, in the modern way), all the way from the heady days of the first release of Windows for Pen Computing, 30 years ago. I’ve indulged myself over the years with various devices and the timeline looks like this…

30 years of my life in pen computing devices

You can see some patterns in the evolution of the technology across the years, with the pace of new device availability increasing in the past 5 or so years:

  • the long development of Windows PC-based pen technology, from the first steps with the TriGem Pen386SX designed by Eden Group, through XP Tablet edition, to Windows 10 / 11, which actually mostly works as an integrated experience
  • a cluster of “write-only” pen devices, the “write-only” characteristic making them mostly rubbish, although the Anoto-paper version of Filofax that came with the Nokia SU-1B was a lovely bit of leather
  • some pen-enabled screens which offer the joy of scribbling on a virtual Whiteboard or shared PowerPoint whilst on a Teams call at my desk
  • various Android tablets and E-Ink e-reader crossovers, always rather disappointing that they don’t do either job very well
  • the nirvana of dedicated writing tablets, exemplified by the Remarkable Tablet and the now discontinued Sony Digital Paper

I actually visited Eden Group in their chapel in Rainow, Cheshire, back in ’92 and developed a small Visual Basic demo app (a doctor’s Ward Round) for their pen computer, which looked like this (courtesy of an archived edition of Byte Magazine):

Eden Group designed TriGem Pen386SX

It was pretty slow compared to modern standards with its mighty 20MHz Intel 386SX processor, 4MB of RAM and 4MB of flash memory, and some PCMCIA slots (hands up who remembers those), but it did work and ran the demo which looked cool (of course).

The thing that has always eluded me, however, is fulfillment of the promise of scrawling great thoughts with my pen; then having that transcribed into a perfect machine-readable digital rendering that you can then also file and search in some useful way.

The path to that destination has been rocky and unsatisfying. For example, the Nokia SU-1B had a transcription service that came with it. It was very poor: you wrote notes in the leather Filofax diary and the software turned those into complete garbage that it carefully wrote into the corresponding slots in your Outlook calendar. So sad.

Even the Remarkable, which is indeed remarkable, does a pretty average job of transcribing my handwriting. Although it is probably more of a case of “no, it’s not you, it’s me” due to my outstandingly bad calligraphy and poor penmanship. They tried to make me write better at school with handwriting lessons and a big fountain pen, but all to no avail, as it still looks like this…

The Remarkable makes a fist of transcribing that and comes out with this pithy screed…

Here is an example of my herd wily converted to hold the Remarkable tablet is vey goal as a paper replaced but is defeated my hard way when it comes to conversion to tend

As transcribed by Remarkable

To add some spice as I am writing this post, and as always to learn something new, I briefly tested the accuracy of some transcription systems using my handwriting sample, measuring the Word Error Rate (using Amberscript). The results are not encouraging…

SystemWord Error Rate (%)
Google Lens24%
Windows 11 / Office26%
Remarkable Tablet30%
Pen to Print (Android App)36%
Transkribus Lite (“Where AI meets historical documents“)76%
Handwriting Transcription Word Error Rates (WER) by system

Whilst Microsoft and Google managed to get about 75% of the words right and with Remarkable coming in third, the other solutions are just worse. So, for me, automated handwriting transcription is largely a pipedream.

In fact, by far the best system ever for recognizing my handwriting is Roger Hill V1.0. Over the years, Roger has painstakingly transcribed my rocket surgeon chicken scratch to create great looking PowerPoint pages, with a WER of probably 1%!

This is Roger, from his LinkedIn profile picture which has not updated since about 1997, I think…Kudos, Roger!

Roger Hill V1.0 – the best handwriting transcription system in the world

And so, now, to a taster of the new generation of colour e-reader/pen devices, the one in my hand is the Boox Nova Air C. The idea of a colour eReader / handwriting device is a major move on from the previous generation of monochrome renderings.

Obviously, you can get colour handwriting and drawing on a mainstream Android tablet like the Samsung Galaxy Tab, but the screen is too smooth and slippery and so the writing/drawing experience is not good. The Boox Nova Air C, like the other devices from the same maker combines a Wacom stylus, an Android 11 system and a Kaleido Plus colour screen (actually the colour is a layer on top of the monochrome eInk).

Boox Nova Air C

Sadly, the rather pastel colours are just underwhelming and really seem just a gimmick. Also, whilst the primary handwriting optimized apps give a good experience, the standard Android apps (like Office, etc.) have very laggy response to the pen which is not usable, and video is not a good idea on eInk. It could replace my Kindle Oasis that is losing its battery life, but it would not replace either the Remarkable or the Samsung Galaxy Tab.

Roll on Remarkable 3?

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