Israeli tech beats out biggest pen kid on the block

Microsoft has switched its pen technology provider from Japanese veteran Wacom to Israel’s N-Trig

An illustration of N-Trig's sensor technology (Photo credit: Courtesy)
An illustration of N-Trig's sensor technology (Photo credit: Courtesy)

Israel’s N-Trig has scored a major victory over a veteran competitor in the pen technology business, an item that is rising from the virtual dead. Microsoft has decided to use N-Trig’s pen technology for its new Surface Pro 3 tablets, taking over from Wacom, one of the world’s biggest makers of pen devices and graphic tablet technology.

Japan-based Wacom is a veteran in the pen and touch arena, producing graphic tablets and electronic stylus devices, known in the business as electronic pens, for over three decades. The company has 80% of the world market for graphics tablets and related products – so the “incursion” of N-Trig into what had been an ongoing partnership between Wacom and Microsoft is a significant win for the Israeli company.

Pen technology harks back to the pre-Internet days of personal information devices like the Palm Pilot, which featured a touch screen of sorts – but one that required users to interface with the screen via a stylus, a plastic or rubber-tipped pen-shaped device. This pen technology, as it was called, remained popular for years – until Apple came out with the iPhone, with its touch technology that proved far more popular than pen.

Palm Pilots are a thing of the past, but the pen technology it required has had a bit of a revival in recent years, as numerous devices – most recently the Surface Pro 3 – have incorporated pen technology, retaining and even enhancing touch capabilities. It’s an example, said Kfar Sava-based N-Trig CFO Eyal Leibovitz, of how consumers today want as much flexibility as possible, flexibility that N-Trig’s technology gives them.

“With our technology, Microsoft was able to make the Surface Pro 3 lighter, because our sensors enable both touch and pen interaction,” said Leibovitz. “Users can thus write on the screen or select and move items with finger swipes, and the manufacturers who we work with, like Microsoft, only have to insert one layer of sensor to enable this, instead of the two usually required.” In the case of the Surface Pro 3, users also get the option of typing onto the screen. Besides pen and touch, users can enter information into the device with a keyboard when its two components – keyboard and screen – are connected.

What works for Microsoft works for dozens of other equipment manufacturers who use N-Trig’s technology – among them Lenovo, Intel, Acer, and Asus, said Leibovitz. Dozens of pen/touch enabled devices are on the market already, and more are on the way, he said. “A lot of devices already included a touch sensor that supports pen, even if those devices currently only support touch,” said Leibovitz. “For those devices we have a software solution that can activate the pen component, allowing users to enjoy both.”

One of the reasons pen “died” the first time was because it was considered much less accurate than touch. While that may have been true in the past, it no longer is, said Leibovitz. “Our pen is very accurate, with a high level of control and rapid refresh to accurately capture ink subtleties, including differences in penmanship between users, the pressure they apply – some press down harder than others on the screen – and other issues, to allow for more exact control. We also have patented palm rejection capabilities,” which ensures that the device “knows” when users are inadvertently leaning their palms on the screen as they write on it with a pen.

Another problem pens have faced has been the inaccuracy of transcription. “Translating the written text into text on the screen is the job of the character reader software, and we have been working on improving this for years,” said Leibovitz, noting that the software N-Trig was using was highly accurate. In addition, “there is no latency (waiting period) between when the text was written and when it appears on the screen. In the past, that latency marred the user experience for pen – users, after all, expect to see what they are writing appear on the screen show up as they write it. “Without latency problems, you get as good an experience as possible,” said Leibovitz.

Enhancing the user experience has been the key to N-Trig’s success, said Leibovitz. “Pen failed in the past because the experience wasn’t good enough. People want a pen on paper experience, where they feel they are actually writing in the way they are used to. It’s not as easy as you might think to achieve this – there are a lot of things we have to look out for, whether it’s character reading, signaling, pressure, and much more. With the technology we are supplying Microsoft and others, I think we have finally achieved this.”

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