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What is Pen Computing?

By Erika C.
Updated May 16, 2024
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Pen computing refers to computers that use a light pen or stylus instead of a keyboard and mouse for primary input. Common pen computers include personal digital assistants (PDAs), mobile devices such as cell phones, wireless tablet PCs and GPS receivers and other touch screen devices. The touch screen uses either gesture recognition or handwriting recognition to relay the item clicked or the information written on the screen to the computer.

Gesture recognition is used to identify input to carry out a command, while handwriting recognition is used to translate handwritten input into digital text. Users can write using normal characters or, in some cases, special recognizable characters. In some instances, the determination of whether a character is used as text or a command is based on where the character is input. For example, in one operating system, drawing a "B" could refer to the letter, bold facing text or toggling borders, depending on use and placement of the character.

While pen computing commonly refers to the movement of a stylus or pen directly on a computer’s touch screen, computers can also receive pen computing data from pen scanners and graphics tablets. A pen scanner is used by sliding a pen across printed text. The text is scanned into the computer and converted to usable text using optical character recognition (OCR) software. Another common pen-based system is a graphics tablet, typically used by graphic designers. In this configuration, the user draws with the pen on a tablet, or digitizer pad, and the input is converted to a digital drawing using graphics software.

Older pen computing systems used light pens that were aimed at cathode ray tube (CRT) monitors. This method, while very accurate, required the user to hold the pen up to the monitor and was uncomfortable for extended periods, causing muscle pain and fatigue. Light pen technology is still used in some industrial and retail environments that don’t require the user to hold the pen to the screen for extended periods of time.

Pen computing has evolved and become more user-friendly over the years. Some early devices were plagued by hard to learn proprietary symbols that were used to reference alpha-numeric characters and by faulty handwriting recognition software. Other devices were created with a narrow scope of available software, which kept them from being embraced by the mainstream public. Modern pen computing devices, like touch screen phones and GPS units, have become more widely used as they have developed practical applications and simpler, more effective user interfaces.

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Discussion Comments

By Ana1234 — On Apr 23, 2014

@clintflint - I like the idea of having different methods of input for my computer simply because I can get really sore in my hands if I stick to only using the mouse and the keyboard. If I sometimes get to use a pen instead, or even voice entry, that is much easier for me.

And I suspect that more and more people will use tablets for their PC, simply because it's a more natural position for the fingers. If they come up with an easy way of converting handwriting into fonts then really that's the only thing that a keyboard can do better than a touch screen.

By clintflint — On Apr 23, 2014

@pleonasm - I think it might depend on your setup though. Most desktops are simply not going to have pen computing in mind but you could probably add that capability if you really wanted to. I'm sure there is software out there that can make tablet-based software compatible with a PC.

Although I'm not a big fan of trying to do too many things with a single rig. I think it's just easier to simply have a tablet and a desktop.

By pleonasm — On Apr 22, 2014

One thing I didn't expect was that when my friend gave me a drawing tablet, I could use it as a touch pad for my desktop, almost the same way as I would use a tablet.

It's pretty cool, because there are a few things that you wouldn't be able to do otherwise. The only problem is that there don't seem to be many applications that take advantage of this kind of thing yet. They are either completely made for a tablet, or completely made for a keyboard and mouse.

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