Steve Jobs dissed the use of styluses on phones and tablets years ago at the introduction of the iPhone. But patents suggest Apple’s serious about adding sophisticated stylus skills to future iPads: It looks like it has plans to push its tablets into the graphics pad market.
Apple’s patent reimagines an iPad for use as a serious precision graphics tool (or possibly for gaming), with the addition of a smart stylus. Steve Jobs dismissed peer smartphones that required a touchscreen stylus when he launched the iPhone in 2007–his argument was that we all carry around 10 perfectly serviceable precision pointing devices all the time: Our fingers. The iPhone, and subsequently iPad, relies on a radically re-thought operating system to maximize finger-powered touchscreens, and it’s arguably this innovation that has propelled the iPhone to iconic status.
But styluses can actually be more precise than fingers, and this is where Apple’s new thinking comes into play. Finger-only touchscreens can have a relatively low-resolution sensor grid, as the average finger tip has a contact point that easily reaches 10 millimeters across–compared to the 1 to 2 millimeters of a typical touchscreen stylus. You can see this with Apple’s graphic about it’s iPad screen: Though the display has millions of pixels, there are only around a thousand touch-sensitive “pixels,” and precision position information is worked out by averaging the response of sensors near a fingertip. It works wonderfully well, but your finger obscures a significant portion of the screen, and though iPads are increasingly being used as art-creation tools, they can’t match up to the kind of intelligent stylus-centric graphics tablets that manufacturers like Wacom produce.
Enter the re-designed stylus imagined by Apple: It may have a conductive body, so your own body can assist with the electrical connection to the touchscreen, and it may have a tiny conductive circular plate at its tip, connected to a ball-and-socket joint so it can rotate to many positions freely. The idea is that this tip keeps better contact with the screen than a pointed stylus would do, and it makes a better electrical bond to the sensors, for more precise positioning. It’ll work the same way your finger on the screen would, just far more precisely–even on a low-touch resolution screen.
Apple even mentions that the stylus could be powered, and equipped with sensors that detect how much pressure you’re applying to the screen, and even the angle you’re holding the stylus at, and how this angle moves as you maneuver the stylus. That’s clever stuff, and could result in some truly innovative digital art packages that allow you to replicate how brush-strokes act on real paper–we imagine it could also facilitate in tasks like handwriting or signature recognition, with this last idea possibly connected to Apple’s plans to add NFC credit card payment powers to its devices.
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