Apple's next iPad won't be pressure-sensitive, but your next stylus might be

While the past few years' crop of iPad styluses have done much to alleviate my irks with straight sketching, I still yearn for pressure sensitivity on my tablet.

As our resident stylus reviewer and off-hours cartoonist, I doodle on my iPad a lot. More than I really ever expected to, really: Having used a Wacom since high school, I hated the idea of drawing digitally without pressure sensitivity. While the past few years’ crop of iPad styluses have done much to alleviate my irks with straight sketching, I still yearn for pressure sensitivity on my tablet.

The iPad has a lot of things going for it: It’s portable. The screen is gorgeous. (And, if rumors of the next iPad sporting a Retina display prove accurate, it will become even more so.) You can directly interact with the canvas in a way that you haven’t really been able to on a Wacom tablet. And it’s easy to sync a sketch to your production machine for coloring and polish.

But there are roadblocks. If Apple wanted to implement pressure recognition into the screen, the company would have to license Wacom’s electromagnetic resonance technology—or design an entirely new system in concert with its current Multi-Touch interface. It’d be pricey, and I doubt the number of artists willing to purchase the product—even if placed on a higher “iPad HD” tier—would offset costs in that area.

Without direct support from Apple, the task falls to third-party app developers and manufacturers. Because pressure sensitivity isn’t integrated systemwide, in order to properly offer a solution, you need support from both the developer and every third-party app you want the technology to work with. (This is why, on your Mac, a Wacom tablet requires a driver to work properly; otherwise, it just behaves like a regular non-sensitive pointer.)

In 2010, Ten One Design showed off a software-only solution—a proof of concept that used private APIs for touch events (how your finger or stylus interacts with the screen) to create rudimentary pressure sensitivity and palm rejection. Those APIs, bundled into a developer’s kit, could have theoretically been integrated with other apps; unfortunately, private frameworks are forbidden on the App Store, and Apple showed no interest in opening up those APIs for developer use.

Thanks to a few enterprising third-party hardware manufacturers, however, 2012 may be the year we finally get to experience pressure-sensitivity. Bluetooth 4.0—support for which is already present in Apple's iPhone 4S and recently released Macs—allows a device like a stylus to connect to your iPad using an extremely low-energy connection; theoretically, this could offer you 24 hours of active sketching time with your stylus before needing to charge it.

As the iPhone 4S already sports Bluetooth 4.0, it’s likely that the next iPad will see the same improvements. Even if Wednesday's event showcases such an iPad, however, manufacturers have to add support for pressure sensitivity. To do so, the pen needs to transmit certain data (like pen angle and pressure from your hand to the nib) from the stylus via Bluetooth to your iPad; from there, software within an app must recognize that data and translate it accordingly.

Two developers have created prototypes of such a pen already, though neither are ready for sale just yet: Adonit, with the Jot Touch, and Ten One Design, with its code-named Blue Tiger stylus. To help third-party app developers translate the data coming from their respective styluses, each company has an SDK (software development kit) available.

There are other developers attempting non-Bluetooth solutions: Developer Jon Atherton recently raised funds on Kickstarter for a stylus that transmits the pen’s movements as high-frequency sound to the iPad’s microphone, while Cregle is working on a pen that transmits information through the iPad’s dock connector dongle.

The third-party solution is not perfect: In order for these styluses to work in the first place, developers still have to incorporate a separate SDK for each pen into their apps, which can be time-consuming. We also have yet to see a product actually come to market; I did have a few chances to play around with the Jot Touch, which I was impressed by, but no time to work it through in detail.

Until Apple decides that pressure sensitivity is worth the time and effort to incorporate at a system level, however, the third-party solution is all we’re going to get. The company could make it easier for manufacturers in the future—it could work with them to build some sort of systemwide plugin, similar to the access that Twitter currently enjoys, for example. But I can’t see that happening until the pens make their official debut and artists start embracing them over other pressure-sensitive solutions. (I know friends of mine who own ultraportable PCs against their will because they incorporate Wacom’s technology.)

But that old line about consumption versus creation becomes ever-harder to defend when your iPad inches ever closer to becoming a miniature Cintiq.

[Serenity Caldwell is a staff editor for Macworld. Knowing Apple won’t make the next iPad pressure-sensitive doesn’t stop her from crossing her fingers over it anyway.]

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