Handwriting Input And Recognition (Part 1)

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1/1/2013 8:27:39 AM

Are the new handwriting recognition systems any good or just a gimmick?

If you’ve spoken with Siri or pecked out a few paragraphs using your iPad’s virtual key­board, you’ll know that traditional keyboards are no longer the only game when it comes to text entry.

Digital pens, such as the excellent Livescribe range, are a fast and accurate way to capture and covert what you write on paper

Digital pens, such as the excellent Livescribe range, are a fast and accurate way to capture and covert what you write on paper

There are now four generally available methods for inputting text into OS X and iOS: conventional keyboards remain the most popular in OS X, while on-screen key­boards are their equivalent on iOS devices; both now support conversion from voice dictation, and they can accept handwritten characters either in real time or offline from files created from recorded writing. Specialist input devices are also available for those with physical impairments who require more unusual means of controlling keyboards.

In the heyday of personal digital assis­tants (PDAs), such as Apple’s ill-fated Newton (1993-1998), the favored means of text entry on small screens was real-time or online recognition of text drawn on the screen using a stylus. Despite substantial research, attaining acceptable accuracy in recognition required you to form their letters in standard ways and to enter each individually as if printing them. If you happened to get on with this approach, rec­ognition was accurate, although most users found errors a pain, and speed of entry con­siderably slower than they might write more naturally on paper.

The Newton

The Newton

The Newton’s writing recognition used directional and spatial ordering of the strokes making up each character, which is simple to obtain when you write using a stylus on a touch-sensitive screen. On a Mac, the closest that you can get to the Newton’s handwriting recognition is the combina­tion of a graphics tablet such as one of the more modestly priced Bamboo models from Wacom, and Ink, controlled by the System Preferences pane of that name in OS X, a descendant of that on the Newton.

Although Ink has come a long way since the rather rigid requirements of the Newton, it still expects you to form certain characters in specific ways, and to print each character rather than using more natural flowing or cursive script. If you have any writing quirks, such as idiosyncratic ‘q’s, you’re likely to find it a frustrating experience. When you turn on Ink and start writing on your tablet, a float­ing sheet appears on top of the active input window and the virtual marks that you’re making on the tablet appear on screen.

The Ink

The Ink

This might work well if you’re fortunate enough to use Wacom’s Cintiq touch-sensi­tive display, but when you’re forming letters on a tablet and they’re displayed not on the tablet but on the disconnected display, this doesn’t help your hand-eye co-ordination. Perhaps if you spend a lot of time drawing on a tablet, this peculiar disjunction may become second nature, but for most users it will be sub-optimal.

Wacom’s Bamboo tablets are relatively cheap and portable, and may not be out of place in your bag alongside a MacBook Air or Pro. Standard connection is via USB, but Wacom offers a wireless accessory kit, which irritatingly relies on its own plug-in USB receiver rather than built-in Bluetooth. Foreign language support is confined at pres­ent to English, French and German, although the Tegaki Project at offers a free X11-based Japanese and Chinese character recognition system. iOS devices have their own touch-sensitive screens, and most note apps now support handwritten input. However, you’ll need the likes of MyScript Memo if you want reliable offline conversion to text.

The last year or two have seen several ‘digital pen’ peripherals claiming to cap­ture and convert what you write on paper. The current leader in terms of accuracy and performance is probably Livescribe’s offline handwriting system. Unlike Ink, which works online in real time, most digital pens are intended primarily to work offline, storing captured jots and tittles for later conversion into text on your Mac.

Livescribe’s smartpen

Livescribe’s smartpen

The marks that make up handwritten lettering are fine, and recording them in a manner that allows reconstitution of the writing has proved be a considerably tough challenge. One solution has been developed by Anoto in the form of spe­cial paper that has thousands of coded registration marks over its surface, giving it the appearance of a faint grey stipple. Livescribe’s pens are equipped with a min­iature infrared camera that can see both the marks made by its ink and those coded marks printed on the paper.

Firmware in the pen records pen-strokes relative to a co-ordinate system constructed from the coded marks using an approach similar to that used in land surveying.

Anoto’s coded marks not only provide a co-ordinate grid on the sheet of paper, but tell the pen on which page in which notebook the writing is made.

When Livescribe’s software imports a page of writing, that information is used to reconstruct the contents of the notebook in PDF files. These can then be passed to a spe­cial MyScript add-on application to perform offline conversion to text. MyScript performs surprisingly well: given 600 words of tech­nical English written over 30 minutes by a left-handed doctor, 92.2% of words were rec­ognized correctly. Writing more slowly in a clearer hand, the success rate rose to 97.4%, and given a bit more care, recognition errors could have become negligible. Thankfully, making corrections is simple, as a fair image of the handwritten original can be displayed side by side with the converted text.

Livescribe and similar systems are lim­ited to using their own pens and paper; Livescribe’s free Desktop software (used to upload pages to your Mac) does allow you to create your own Anoto-coded paper, but your printer must have a resolution of 600dpi or higher, and even then there are some compatibility issues.

The combination of LiveScribe and MyScript supports a surprisingly rich range of languages, including most based on Roman characters, plus Chinese, Arabic, Hindi, Russian and Japanese. The most pop­ular, including English, are supported in both printed and flowing cursive scripts, and much in between.

Some competitors, such as IRIS notes ( Digital-Pen-family.aspx) and similar models from the likes of Staedtler, attempt to do away with special paper, having their origins in handheld scanners instead. Conversion is available online, when connected wire­lessly to your Mac or iOS device, or offline. Unlike the rather fat Livescribe pens, those working with plain paper are usually slim line, but require a second bar-like transceiver positioned close to your writing. Supporting recognition software may offer training in an attempt to improve recognition accuracy, but in most hands they don’t perform as well in this respect as Livescribe’s models.

Much less progress has been made in the conversion of scanned handwrit­ing to text. Specialist products for use with forms do work better, and are available from MyScript’s developers at, and some high-end OCR products can handle printed writing.

For most users, online handwriting rec­ognition using Ink and a tablet remains little more than a party trick. As with iOS devices, you might find it useful for scribbling the occasional note, but it’s not really a serious competitor for normal keyboards. However, for those who still prefer to exercise their handwriting skills, a Livescribe pen with MyScript could prove very valuable indeed.

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