Artists, we're living in the Future

Using your fingers or stylus to interact with a mobile phone is pretty universal these days. But it wasn't always so. The digitizing table originated in the early '70s as an analog-to-digital interface for traditionally hand drawn pen & ink engineering drawings. A draftsman would register a completed drawing on a large-format digitizing table, then use a wired puck or stylus to digitize the crucial data points representing the drawing and transfer this data to a computer.

A smaller version —the digitizing tablet— was appropriated and used in concert with early commercial paint and draw applications. Until we arrived at the current drawing on glass era, the digital artist has been required to learn an eye/hand coordination trick in which drawing is done on the tablet surface while watching the resulting strokes appear on the display. I've been working this way for over 30 years and I'm completely comfortable with it. But, for many artists new to expressive digital mark-making tools, this paint-in-one-place-see-it-somewhere-else approach is disorienting.

By the late 90's, tablets had acquired the ability to sense all six degrees of motion (X, Y, Pressure, Tilt. Bearing, and Barrel Rotation). With this data, the artist's full gestural motion was now capable of being translated into expressive strokes by savvy software apps. However, the bugaboo of look here, draw there remained. This changed in 1998 when Wacom introduced the PL-300 LCD Pen Tablet.

The PL-300 used an outboard power supply and required an external computer (Win or Mac). While this technology realized the dream of direct stylus interaction with the screen, specification-wise the PL-300 suffered from low resolution (1024 X 768), poor color accuracy (typical for LCD displays of the era), tricky setup, as well as sluggish performance. It would take Wacom several product generations to eliminate these early impediments.

Apple in 2007 debuted the iOS-based iPhone, heralding the dawn of the multi-touch finger-sensitive touchscreen interface that is today ubiquitous on multiple platforms. Following the success of the iPhone, the iPad arrived in 2010 sporting a larger form factor. Both the iPhone and iPad utilize capacitive display technology which enables direct interaction using your fingers. Unfortunately, this technology is not well-suited to precise expressive mark-making. As a result, several 3rd-party stylus solutions solved this limitation by leveraging Bluetooth as a means of sending pressure-sensitive data to the iPad. Due to the capacitive display, however, these styluses suffer from large tips that hinder precision.

Apple addressed this in 2015 with the iPad Pro and its integrated Pencil stylus. Improvements in display, processor, and stylus sensing technologies provide the iPad Pro with an elegant expressive gestural mark-making solution, albeit within the iOS ecosystem.

The iPad Pro's dependence on iOS limits the artist's choice of expressive draw and paint applications. While there are several good iOS-based apps that take advantage of the Pencil's gestural savvy, users wanting to use industry-standard pro tools like Photoshop and Painter are out of luck. Cue the rise of the pen tablet...

Microsoft's Win10 pen tablet —the Surface Pro— comes to the rescue. The Surface Pro (originally released in 2012, now in its 3rd generation) has pressure-sensitivity built in. Win10 enables full versions of design and gesture-heavy applications like Photoshop and Painter to run. Other hardware vendors are starting to adopt this form factor, now including Wacom.

The recently released Wacom MobileStudio Pro takes the Win10 hybrid and outfits it with specific proprietary Wacom features: surface controls (Touch Ring, ExpressKeys), zero parallax surface, 8192-level pressure stylus (Pro Pen 2), as well as fast processors, GPU, 4K display, and cameras capable of 2D and 3D capture. And all in a 4.5 lb. package (MSP 16). 

With all of this miniaturization and increased processor power we have commenced the era of the truly portable digital paint/render/photo-retouch studio. Just a few years ago, this was science fiction.

Artists, we're living in the Future.