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Making the iPad Pro feel like paper will take more than a screen protector

One of the only nitpicks I have about my iPad Pro and Pencil is the feel of drawing on the glass screen: While the Pencil is the best stylus I've ever used on the iPad by a large margin, it still suffers from a much slicker drawing experience than true paper and pencil.

Jury-rigging the stylus experience

At its core, this is a scientific problem. Rubber or hard plastic on glass is going to produce a different feel than a nib on paper, and though companies can tweak their nibs slightly to improve the experience with greater drag, it's a hotfix: What might be the perfect amount of drag for one person may prove too sticky or frustrating to work with for another.

Before the Pencil came on the scene, this is why users had such a wide array of capacitive nibs to choose from: Certain folks preferred the feel of a sleek fabric nib, while others wanted the ultra-drag of a fat-tipped rubber stylus. Apple's pen currently only comes with a single style (a thin, hard plastic nib), which might prove frustrating to those who don't like this experience. Rumor has it, Apple was tweaking that nib until the last minute, which contributed to the delays. But it's still not perfect.

iPad Pro and Pencil wouldn't be tech products if people didn't tinker with them — over the last year, there have been a number of tweaks to try and "rough up" the Pencil's slippery drawing experience, including coating the Pencil nib with soap or soda (not recommended), and now special matte screen protectors with increased drag.

As reported by Zac Hall at 9to5Mac, German entrepreneur Jan Sapper has created a matte screen protector he calls PaperLike, which supposedly simulates the drawing feel of paper on your screen.

I don't doubt that Sapper's screen protector helps with the drawing experience; I've tried a number of various screen protectors on my iPad, all of which add a bit of drag when working with my Pencil. But even the best screen protector in the world is still an addition to your iPad — it's a jury-rigged fix for a more troublesome problem.

How do you solve a problem like haptic feedback?

When we talk about styluses being too slippery or too slow, what we're really talking about is the haptic feedback our brains receive get as a result of using a tool against the screen. The Pencil doesn't actually feel like drawing on paper because our brains have a recorded notion of what drawing on paper feels like — and no stylus can currently compare.

Screen protectors and nib tweaks can adjust that feeling somewhat, but they're still striving for a sensation that's almost impossible to replicate. Worse, it's hard to iterate on that if it doesn't perfectly work for you: If Sapper's screen protector provides too much drag on the Pencil, you then have to choose between having lots of friction (screen protector) or none at all (glass screen).

There is another, better way — but it requires Apple to put the effort into its technology. The company already has "Taptic" technology that it's used for 3D Touch and Force Touch on the MacBook Pro trackpad, and has reportedly experimented with using it to simulate virtual keyboards and other, more subtle movements in games.

The iPad Pro screen has long proven difficult to build a properly-functioning Taptic Engine into because of its size. But what if, instead of adding it to the iPad, Apple were to build a tiny Taptic Engine for the Apple Pencil itself?

Taptic technology is a long-running project at Apple. You can look back at some of the original research conducted at MIT in 1995, Computational haptics : the Sandpaper system for synthesizing texture for a force-feedback display to get a sense of just what could eventually be possible. In short, displays that feel like anything the app wants them to feel like.

For Pencil, microscopic rumbles as you draw could help simulate the feel of paper, or canvas, or other surfaces in a way altering the screen itself couldn't, and because the Taptic Engine is software-controlled, you'd be able to tweak it to your personal preferences on your iPad.

There are, of course, technical challenges: The Pencil's battery life would most certainly take a hit with a Taptic Engine onboard, and Apple would have to do a fair amount of development to squeeze correctly-sized internals into the Pencil's circular body.

But were the company to solve this issue, it could not only help artists and writers have a better experience on the iPad Pro — the technology could be a huge boon for developing accessories for accessibility, too.

Serenity was formerly the Managing Editor at iMore, and now works for Apple. She's been talking, writing about, and tinkering with Apple products since she was old enough to double-click. In her spare time, she sketches, sings, and in her secret superhero life, plays roller derby. Follow her on Twitter @settern.

17 Comments
  • Serenity, this article makes me feel like you wrote the wrong article. I was looking forward to your objective view on this product as an artist. The main part of the article leaves me with a feeling that your beef is with Jan Sapper. The heading reduces his product to a screen protector, when that is a side effect. Within the article you seem to dismiss his product as yet another screen protector, like so many others you have used previously. You're spot on with your final recommendation to Apple and I wish you had developed this further. What would the UI look like or what would the user need to specify? What future activities would this make possible? I still look forward to your views on Jan Sappers product.
  • Yes this is true that apple pencil and ipad pro combination like sketch book and pencil. I used for ome year and really amazing device and with procreate app it is the best device for artists. I used astropad pro also but for flat drawings this is flat cintiq and you can not expect pressure sensitivity like Wacom. But for professionals it will work only for 50% and to complete work you have to use desktop tools like Photoshop, Illustrator, Corel Painter and others. I changed from iPad pro to Wacom Intuos Pro now i see and feel reall pressure sensitivity. This article incomplete and we have to see other areas to give proper feedback to readers.
  • I'm interested to try Sapper's product, but my main point here is that it's a short-term fix to a larger issue — and one that won't fix every user's problem. Everyone wants a slightly different feel for their drawing or writing, and a screen protector only helps the fraction of those users who like that specific texture. To fix the "Pencil is too slippery" issue, Apple needs to address the core problem, and that means tinkering with the Pencil itself.
  • …and haptic feedback could give a variety of sensations, theoretically: ink, pencil, charcoal, oil paint, water colors, markers, exacto knife, chalk. Then you just need an API to let devs match the sensation to the tool. This even opens up to other sensations, like a lock pick in a game, chisel in a 3D sculpting program, or film sliding by in video editor. Even synthetic ones to symbolize an item is being dragged and dropped, or to indicate a CAD (drafting/blueprints) snap point (e.g. middle of a line, tanget to a curve, perpendicular to a shape). You could have a unique tap to distinguish between the node you think you are on and node you really are on. That solves a problem that draftsmen face. As iOS is touch based, all of this makes sense as a natural extension of the system. I have been thinking the same thing. There is a lot of air space in there. I think the only trade off would be weight.
  • It's from a user, not Apple.
    You seem to be saying that he is Apple, and making him responsible for solving the lack of a desirable surface feedback. Most screen protectors mimic the iPads native glass feel. However, the concept of the product is not to mimic native glass feel. So, it is an incorrect comparison. The concept of the the product may not be perfect for everyone but maybe it's just good enough for a short term fix.
  • Honestly, I'm not sure that I need iPad and pencil to feel like traditional paper. Illustrators were already using graphics tablets and cintiqs, which never felt like paper anyway. I look at it like oils or dry pastels. Each medium is going to feel different.
  • This. I think the entire premise of the article (I.e, that it's a "problem" the iPad Pro doesn't feel like paper when you draw on it) is misplaced. The feel and tactile feedback one gets when drawing is dependent on the medium and tools used, and this is no different. Comparing the iPad Pro to other media might be an interesting way to fill up space on the pages of iMore, but it's certainly not a "problem" or "issue". It's just another way of doing things.
  • A backer of my PaperLike campaign asked me to comment on this blogpost, here what I answered him: "I have read about this idea of a Taptic Engine in the Apple Pencil before and I agree it would be an awesome addition to the Apple Pencil user experience. Imagine all use cases this would make possible, but even though it’s a cool idea, it wouldn’t solve the line-control issue. As an engineer, I can give you some background to why a stylus with a taptic engine won't physically help when writing and drawing on a slippery surface. A useful analogy would be the following: You would still have difficulty walking on ice, if your shoes could simulate the crunchy feel of gravel with a taptic engine. - A pencil slipping all over the place wouldn’t be easier to control if it vibrated.

    My reason of creating the PaperLike is not because I miss the paper feel. It is because it is difficult to control the tip of the pencil on a slippery surface. The PaperLike’s surface friction and the microscopic structure gives you a better feel of how the pencil is moving. This visceral feeling makes the whole drawing (and for me writing) experience more rewarding as you're not fighting all the time to take control over the way the pencil is travelling over the slippery screen.“ Serenity, I completely get your point in this article, that the PaperLike seems like a short term solution, but in my opinion the PaperLike is a solid long term fix to the "fighting for line control on a slippery screen" problem. Please get in touch with me in case you'd like to chat about this: hello@sapper.me
  • I'm 67, and I've been drawing, and painting since I was a kid. So that's a good 60 years. Over that time, I've drawn with just about every paper, and non paper you can imagine. I've also used just about every type of pencil, and non pencil around. The thing is, there is no pencil and paper feel. They are all different, and often, in a major way. Wax pencils on smooth paper feel entirely different from charcoal on rough paper. Real silver pencils feel totally different on any paper that you can use them on (they are very hard, and will tear many papers easily) than pretty much anything else. The point is that trying to pursue a particular "feel" is a waste of time. Most professional artists use several of these mediums, and automatically adjust their working to match what they are. If you are using one medium and keep thinking that you wish it felt like another, then you should be using that other I started using a Wacom tablet in the 1980's, with my Atari STs. They were the best publishing computer almost to 1990. When the owners lost their way. Publishing Partner, later renamed Pagestream, and Calamus, which is still around for the Mac and Windows platforms were well ahead of what was available for the Mac. When Painter first came out (in that gallon paint can I still have), it was a major breakthrough. Yes, it took from 2 to 10 seconds before a stroke became rendered, but hey, we couldn't do that before at all, so we minorly grumbled about it, and used it. Did the Wacom feel like a painterly medium? Nope! Not even close. Did we make a big fuss about it? Nope. It was what it was, and we got used to it. So now we have the iPad Pro 12.9", and the Pencil, and people are crabbing that it doesn't feel like a pencil on paper. Well, sheesh, of course not. Hey, suck it up people. When the iPad first came out, a number of artists did some fantastic work using their finger! Did they complain? No, they did not, because they knew this was a different medium, and you use it for what it is. Didn't we go through this about keyboards when the iPhone first came out? Is that a real issue today? Look, this is just one medium among many. It's different, as is every other medium from each other. Just get used to it. In a few years, people will think it's normal and stop complaining. You may as stop now.
  • Wow, you are quite full of yourself!
    Your comment seems to say that you think Serenity was somehow criticizing something, maybe the iPad itself, Apple, screen protector maker or whatever. And you seems to say accepting the status quote is ok and that everybody should look at the world through your len and no other. I believe Serenity was exploring solutions on how tech can improve the feel and functionality of the iPad / pencil experience and I believe there is nothing wrong with that. An haptic engine inside the pencil is an intriguing idea - so is cuttheredwire's exploration of said idea.
  • You're pretty full of yourself, if you presume to know what my point was. I usually agree with Serenity. This time, I think it's out of place. So you think that everyone must automatically agree with everything that's been written? Why would that be?
    I have a lot of experience here. I'm also making a prediction, If you knew anything about this, maybe you wouldn't have made that remark.
  • True, I am not into drawing and I have no doubt you have way more experience with drawing than me. You've said you have used all sort of drawing instruments and mediums and that they are all different - the iPad/pencil experience is just another one of those different drawing experience and she should just accept (adopt) it as is. Now, even though I have not used any of these drawing tools, I can image each offers its own unique and rewarding experience. Serenity's article was about exploring the potential of the iPad/pencil solution to offer up those same rich and divers experience(s) through technology via a single tool (device). Why would you say it is wrong to want that, to explore that possibility? To re-use your logic. Just because you wrote your comment why should I "automatically agree" with you? PS. I did not automatically agreed with Serenity, I've stated my reasonings (in both of my comments).
  • No, you totally didn't get melgross' point. Serenity's argument was that Apple put additional effort into developing a certain technology(in this case haptic feedback) just to make the Apple Pencil feel more like a real pencil. What melgross said is that there is no such thing as a feeling of a real pencil and paper. The Apple Pencil feels different from other drawing tools just like how different types of pencils feel different on different types of papers. No technology can possibly turn the Apple Pencil into an infinitely versatile drawing tool that can simulate every type of pen and paper on earth.
  • Serenity: I want to see an interview with this guy in a follow up article. :D
  • i second that!!
  • So many internet comments seem to come with a free slice of personal criticism, sometimes small, sometimes large. I guess it is hard to avoid. 🙁
  • There is an interesting issue here which is that it seems to be a matter of personal preference as well as context. So the idea of varying apparent surface texture through magic haptics seems like it might be useful, as might different physical surface options, including switchable ones. It also seems that physical media offer different feedback experiences and that some people may have no trouble adjusting to the existing feel and may even prefer it to paper, paint, etc.. I could imagine Apple or another company offering switchable tips also. I do wonder if a scratcher surface will cause more wear on the Apple Pencil tip though.