Touchscreen enabled computers and Tablet PCs are only as good as the ability of the hardware and software to handle ink input and convert it accurately to text. First generation Tablet PCs and other touchscreen devices did a much better job at handwriting recognition (HWR) than the devices that came before them but the accuracy of the conversion was still not good enough to satisfy many consumers. The Microsoft release of Tablet PC 2005 made a big improvement in the accuracy with which Tablet PCs could convert ink to text finally moving the Tablet PC into the big time.
I wrote an article about alternate text entry methods that describes many different software utilities that are available for use on touchscreen enabled devices (including Tablet PCs). Most of the methods are directed at devices that do not run the Tablet OS as the Text Input Panel (TIP) is quite good at handling ink and accurately converting it to text in any application. These methods can be used on the Tablet PC but most people have indicated to me that they feel they are not necessary because of the capability of the TIP, and for the most part I agree with them. The only real complaint I hear over and over about the TIP is the loss of the "write anywhere" ability that early versions of the Tablet OS made available to the user but was removed in the current version. While the TIP data entry area is very versatile, the ability to write anywhere on the screen is considered very useful by many.
Not long after the text entry article was published I was contacted by the EverNote Corporation. EverNote is the company that produces ritePen which was featured in the article. In that article I indicated that ritePen was excellent for non Tablet PC devices such as the Sony U ultra-portables which do not ship with the Tablet OS. That observation was not far off the mark as Sony began bundling ritePen on the Sony U750P that was released in the US late last year. Many Sony U owners are quite happy with ritePen which bears witness to the utility of the program on that particular computer.
EverNote wanted to make sure that I understood how ritePen worked, especially when used on a Tablet PC. This from EverNote:
"In a nutshell, ritePen first runs the two engines (EverNote Corp.’s
advanced handwriting recognition engine and TIP) in whatever order it
opts to use. Then it uses a dedicated fusion module (based on neural
networks and trained on very large handwritten samples from many
thousands users) to adjust the best answer and the whole list of answer
alternatives (which is offered by the correction interface), based on
the lists of results by the two engines. In our tests on the Tablet PC,
it cuts down the error ratio of the TIP engine by ~20%. In principle,
our fusion technology can combine any number of handwriting recognition
engines that have "word-based" recognition, provided the device is
powerful enough to eliminate a possible slowdown."
Needless to say this intrigued me a great deal and I began wondering if ritePen really is more accurate when used in conjunction with the TIP recognition. I have been using ritePen for over a month and this article is the result of that process.
In order to fully appreciate the technology behind ritePen it is necessary to look at a brief history of the program and the team behind it. The technology behind ritePen was originally done by the team at ParaGraph, a company founded by Stepan Pachikov, who is also the founder of EverNote. The team at ParaGraph was the team that produced the HWR for the Apple Newton, the first PDA to attempt serious HWR. ParaGraph was subsequently sold to SGI and further refined the second generation HWR technology that were eventually acquire by Microsoft and distributed in Windows CE and the Tablet PC. Pachikov went on to form Pen&Internet which has morphed into the EverNote Corporation as it is known today. The history shows us that the ritePen development team knows quite a lot about HWR and has played a role in almost all mobile devices since the early 1990s.
A simple install routine and ritePen is configured to launch upon Windows startup and after you boot you find a little pen icon in your system tray. Single clicking the icon toggles the pen on and off and the icon clearly reflects which mode you are in. Right clicking the pen icon lets you also turn the pen on/off, access the settings controls and display the ritePen toolbar. The toolbar can be configured to always stay up on the screen if you wish and lets you toggle the pen function on and off, access the settings, show the Words Menu for adding words to the dictionary on the fly, and activating the symbols keypad. The symbols pad is an easy way to enter symbols that don’t always convert well from handwriting.
At this point ritePen is easy to invoke any time you want. With the pen turned on ritePen senses when you are in a text entry situation and writing on the screen will be automatically converted to text after a brief period of inactivity. Stop writing and your words appear in your document. If you are not in a text entry situation the cursor and pen work just like a mouse so ritePen doesn’t interfere with your normal work. This scheme works surprisingly well and you find that you forget ritePen is even there until you need it. This is the way tools should work so you don’t even think about them until necessary.
The single coolest feature of ritePen is the write anywhere nature of the tool. Once your document or entry box has the focus by clicking in it you can write anywhere on the screen you want. You can write with letters as large or as small as you want, ritePen handles all equally well. Just let the text flow across the screen and your ink stays visible until you pause for a brief period. Once you pause the ink is converted to text and almost immediately the converted words and sentences appear in the text entry box. It is really seamless and EverNote should be proud how well this works.
Your written masterpiece can consist of printed letters or cursive or a combination of the two, ritePen handles all with equal aplomb. While it is better to try and make your lines of ink straight I find that ritePen does pretty well handling lines that wander crookedly, something I always seem to do when I don’t have ruled lines to guide me. Once your ink has been converted to text correcting any recognition errors is as simple as gesturing with the pen.
ritePen provides a number of very simple pen gestures that provide a lot of power and ease in correcting any mistakes. There are gestures to backspace, add a space, add a line break, call up the punctuation (symbols) keypad, undo function and a gesture to call up the answer list. The answer list will show you alternate spellings for all inked words in the immediate vicinity of the cursor. It is a simple select from a menu to correct the misrecognized word in your documents. The gestures are demonstrated here as obtained from the ritePen website:
ritePen is easy to use and I find the corrections easy to do on the fly. I don’t notice any performance hits with ritePen running and there are no hesitations at any time while ritePen is running.
Coexistence with the TIP
Tablet PC owners probably wonder how ritePen functions when coexisting with the HWR functions that are present with the TIP. It’s also understandable to ask why ritePen is even needed when the TIP functions so well as of 2005 (SP2). These are reasonable questions and I would like to address those. You can have both the TIP and ritePen active simultaneously with no problems whatsoever. You can turn the ritePen pen off when you want to use just the TIP, say when you want to enter URLs into your browser and have the benefits of the special buttons on the TIP that makes that easier. You can fully use the TIP just like normal even if ritePen is active. The floating TIP icon is right where you expect it and once you open the TIP you can use it as you always do. ritePen won’t even enter into the picture in that event.
What I find I do a lot is use ritePen when I’m entering a lot of text (like this article) and often do the correction with the TIP. It’s a simple matter to double click the misrecognized word and hit the floating TIP icon if I want. Then I can use the TIP correction functions which I like and make corrections. For minor corrections I will often use the ritePen gestures to make the changes I need to make. It’s really up to individual tastes and styles and the nice thing is how well these two programs coexist.
Handwriting recognition is affected by the quality of the individual’s handwriting as everyone’s is different. Lets face it, that’s why signatures are accepted as legal proof of identity, handwriting is very personal. Any observations about the accuracy of any HWR program is very dependent on the individual’s handwriting and because of that I don’t put much stock in accuracy percentages that are often quoted. All I really care about is how well these programs handle my handwriting, which I will admit is horrible. I can have handwritten notes that I have trouble reading a week later because my handwriting is so bad. While that may seem like I am not a good candidate to discuss how well a HWR program works I think just the opposite. If it can handle my poor handwriting it can handle anyone’s.
ritePen is very accurate for me. It think the freeform entry method of writing all over the screen makes it easier for me to write long pieces without missing a beat. ritePen does an excellent job interpreting whole sentences, something that the TIP has trouble with occasionally. One of the most persistent problems I have with the TIP is errant capitalization, you know when it capitalizes words in the middle of sentences and sometimes fails to capitalize the first word in a sentence. These drive me crazy having to correct them and I can get a word with this problem every couple of sentences if I am not careful. This problem almost completely disappears with ritePen as it seems to know that regular words in the middle of sentences are just that and it doesn’t capitalize them erroneously nearly as much as the TIP. This alone is worth the price of admission for me.
I write a lot of long articles (can’t you tell) and correspondence and I find ritePen much more conducive to the creative process than the TIP. When writing with the TIP I am constantly interrupting the flow of my written words to correct the misrecognized ones that crop up all the time. It’s probably just me but I cannot keep writing while those misrecognized and improperly capitalized words are staring me in the face, which is probably because they are right under the words I am writing. With ritePen I can complete long missives without getting distracted because I am writing all over the screen and errors are not noticed where I am looking. This makes a big difference to me because the reason I love the Tablet PC in the first place is how stimulating it is for creative endeavors. It also means I can write faster with ritePen as a result of that and also because I am writing as large as I want. There is no constraint to write in a confined area like the TIP.
I don’t want to give the impression that I don’t like the TIP functions, I think the improvements Microsoft made in SP2 are just phenomenal. The accuracy of the recognition in the current version of the Tablet OS is extremely good and is a great accomplishment. This is why EverNote has put the ability to fuse ritePen’s HWR engine with the TIP and why the combination of the two is greater than either of the individual parts. If you are a Tablet PC owner and have not tried ritePen under Tablet PC 2005 I urge you to try it and I believe you will see the same benefits I enjoy while using it. There is a free trial period with ritePen so give it a few days and see if you reach the same conclusions I have. The full version of ritePen is $26.95 at the time of this writing which is a very reasonable price for the utility it provides.