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FiftyThree's iPad Pencil Makes Artistic Point

FiftyThree's iPad Pencil Makes Artistic Point

Steve Jobs famously deplored styluses -- "If you see a stylus, they blew it," he said of the iPad's tablet competitors -- but that was then. The version FiftyThree came up with looks as though it will be as well received as the company's popular Paper app. "It's perfect," enthused iPad art teacher Caroline Mustard. "It makes a really good connection."

By John P. Mello Jr. MacNewsWorld ECT News Network
11/20/13 10:48 AM PT

FiftyThree, which has earned kudos in the iPad community for its critically acclaimed art app Paper, has moved into the hardware business with a new stylus called "Pencil."

The stylus, which looks like a carpenter's pencil, comes in two versions: a graphite offering for US$49.95 and a walnut one for $59.95.

"Its balance is beautiful," Caroline Mustard, education director of the Mobile Art Academy, told MacNewsWorld.

Mustard, who beta tested Pencil, liked being able to see what she was doing while using the device. Its software can make an accurate distinction between the screen contact of a wielder's palm and the Pencil, she pointed out.

Palm Rejection That Works

Judging from Mustard's experience, the stylus appears to have met its design goals.

"We designed Pencil to be an extremely accessible and expressive tool," FiftyThree CEO Georg Petschnigg told MacNewsWorld.

"The way that comes to life," he continued, "is it's incredibly well-built with quality materials."

More than a little thought was invested into the device's tip, too. It's three-dimensional with slanted sides, making it easier to add shading to sketches, and its coating allows for a smooth feel on a screen.

"It's perfect," Mustard said. "It makes a really good connection."

Software plays an important role in the design of Pencil, which connects to iPads with Retina displays via Bluetooth and has a built-in battery that recharges via USB.

"It has industry-leading palm rejection," Petschnigg asserted. "It's the first palm rejection that works with multitouch gestures in the iPad."

Go With the Flow

A clever touch to Pencil is that you can flip it to actually erase what you've drawn on the screen.

"That's a very natural gesture," Petschnigg observed. "There are probably 50 billion pencils out there that do that."

As natural as that gesture may be, it's not useful for all purposes.

"It's too clumsy to use for me as a painter," Mustard said, "but if I were using the app for a different purpose, like taking notes, then it would be very useful."

Pencil's software allows changing artistic functions without jumping in and out of stylus mode. For example, while using Pencil, you can smudge objects on a screen with your fingers, allowing you to create gradients in a drawing or to de-emphasize the background in a storyboard.

"The smudge function is awesome," Mustard said.

That kind of integration between stylus and software is designed to remove barriers between a creator and what they're creating.

"It allows people to stay in their creative flow," Petschnigg said. "When you're working through ideas, staying in the flow is key and that's what the tool does."

Yuck Factor

During his time at the helm of Apple, Steve Jobs knocked the use of styluses with the company's touch products.

"If you see a stylus, they blew it," he said of tablet makers who forced their users to use pen input.

Jobs expressed similar sentiments when he introduced the iPhone at Macworld in 2007: "Who wants a stylus? You have to get them and put them away and you lose them and yuck."

His reaction did not banish the devices from the Apple world, however.

"There are definitely applications that benefit from some sort of writing apparatus, and I think the stylus is the best example of that today," Jeff Orr, senior practice director for mobile devices at ABI Research, told MacNewsWorld.

There are a number of users who just feel more comfortable with a stylus than with their fingers.

"They prefer the stylus because of the size, shape and balance of it," Orr pointed out.

It may be more efficient to interact with an app with a stylus than a finger, he continued. "Artists and designers -- those interacting without the written word, with an open canvas -- are going to look for a stylus for things like handwriting and brush strokes."

As for Jobs' remarks about styluses, they need to taken with a grain of context.

"When he said what he said, he was speaking about the previous generation of touchscreens, which used resistant screens where you needed a stylus to activate them," Petschnigg noted. "Now, six years later, we're starting to master touch. The next evolutionary step is to bring tools into play."


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