A large portion of the human brain is devoted to processing vision. We turn light collected on two small surfaces into electrical signals that are converted into a rich three dimensional model of the world around us. Simple tasks like catching a ball turn out to be beautiful examples of Newtonian physics. Observing the world gave us a huge supply of problems at many levels of difficulty. Over the centuries we worked through Nature's hints and problem sets developing amazingly predictive theories about how the Universe works along the way.
I sometimes wonder what discovery of physical law and art would be like for other animals if they had brains as powerful as ours. Dogs with their sense of smell probably wouldn't notice as much of the beautiful geometry in the sky. They'd probably concentrate on odors and would develop a science centered on chemistry. Their art would be very foreign to us - stories with rich plots on top of plots where observation is of the past rather than the present and time is calculated by the decay of an odor.... Whales are acoustic specialists, but the sounds they're sensitive to doesn't allow precise imaging. Their intuitive geometry might not be very crisp and what we think of as simple constructions might be abstract. Their vision isn't very good so they wouldn't be finding the patterns in the sky.
Our physics and math progressed to a point but finally intuition beyond visual observation became important. We struggle with what the equations suggest and rely on private visualizations to make sense of abstract fields like quantum mechanics and fields. One has to wonder if intelligent spiders might might have several legs up on us grasping field theory.
Nature allows many lines of questioning - but I'll admit to being biased towards vision.
Visualization is a necessary skill in much of science. More than a few physics departments offer courses through art departments to improve drawing and visualization skills. I suspect most people who end up in science have been sketching and visualizing for years.
I've been drawing as long as I can remember. I remember the kinetic joy of finger painting, but the real freedom came with pencil and paper. My Dad would bring home rolls of inexpensive butcher paper and let my sister and I go at it. We'd draw for hours. Time slowed down or just disappeared as drawings just emerged. Then we'd be pulled out of our trances for dinner or bed. It is the first time I can remember falling into a state of flow.
I still draw and sketch quite a bit for recreation and thinking. Paper is an amazing technology when you think about it, but I would love to be able to easily capture my drawings digitally. I've spent a fair amount of money and effort trying to do this, but nothing has been satisfying. When something is important I hunt for paper and pencil and then scan or photograph it if it needs to be digital.
With this as background, Apple's iPad Pro announcement caught my attention this week. I haven't tried one, but it may get me past the flow boundary. If you don't know about it, take a look at Apple's promotion video from the announcement a few days ago:
This isn't a normal iPad. iPads use a pointing device that, although convenient, isn't terribly accurate. I use my iPad 3 for reading, browsing, email and other forms of communication, reading and even editing music and photos. I leave my laptop at home when I travel. It is very good at what it does., but...
the regular iPad fundamentally fails as a drawing device
Sure you can do some simple drawing and any number of styli are on the market that are a bit more accurate than a finger. When I was a toddler I progressed from my finger to a pencil. I want a digital device that feels like a pencil on paper.
Currently most digital artists use Wacom tablets - digitizing tablets that use a pen. The tablet is usually held at a right angle to the screen. Precision work is possible, but my hand feels disconnected to the drawing surface. Additionally there is a bit of latency - sometimes you pen is moving faster than the image on the screen. Flow is elusive.
Some artists use Cintiq screens. They're an LCD screen that is sensitive to a pen. Think of them as iPads with much better pointing accuracy. In theory they're what you need, but there are some issues.1 They have low resolution color screens separated by a thick piece of glass. The image surface is far removed from the drawing surface causing parallax problems. The screens tend to be heavy. They're heavy, very expensive and need to be connected to a PC. There are often driver problems when new OS and drawing software appears. But there're the best thing going.
I need something that is accurate to the pixel level, and has a very low latency - the lag between moving the pen and having the image respond. The Cintiq I used had a best case 25 millisecond latency. Flow is very difficult to achieve if your image can't keep up with your pen. The other issues, particularly the parallax, were annoying, but latency killed it.
The iPad Pro, if it is as good as the video suggests, is an enhanced iPad.2 It is just an iPad until you need the precision drawing demands. Microsoft completely blew their demos when they showed crude drawing that is cleaned up in software and crude lettering - you can do that with your finger. Some, not all, need to go beyond that.
For it to be useful I think I need a latency below 10 milliseconds. I know I can detect and feel 15. I keep asking if artists have tried it and there is some indication this may be in the right ballpark. Apple is using faster sampling and screen drawing when the pencil is in use, so maybe ... If it isn't quite there, they'll probably improve in the next year or two. There are other issues like screen and pencil feel, but I think I can forgive them if everything else works.
So is this the iPad for everyone? Certainly not.3 A normal iPad is more than enough and is something of a PC replacement for many. But if you're a kid or draw, you would want a responsive and accurate pencil when you need to use it. If you draw a lot the pencil is just an extension of your hand - you don't think about it as a drawing instrument.4
Rarely to I see technology that makes me sit up. This is one of those times. It is spendy, so I may wait a year for a more responsive model and would probably go for the standard sized iPad if the feature is extended throughout the line. But we're getting close to computationally enhanced paper...
I'll leave with a video featuring an artist I met several years ago at Disney. Glen Keane draws for the joy of it. The video captures a bit of why you draw early on. He moves on to a VR drawing tool that asks some interesting questions, but I'm more interested in drawing itself - when you can just draw and flow away.
1 I used one quite a bit four years ago and tried a much better one last year. The newer model was better, but is far from what I need. Would I take one if someone gave it to me? - no...
2 I've tried a Surface and would have bought one if it worked to my needs. I fails the latency test. Would I take one if someone gave it to me? - no...
3 Apple appears to be positioning this as a business tool in addition to the creative niche. Would I take one if someone gave it to me? - certainly (donations welcome:) Would I pay $1k for one? - maybe, but it would have to past my accuracy and latency hurdles.
Perhaps a more interesting question is would this be more appealing if it ran OS X rather than iOS? File management is important for art. Great art programs already exist.
4 You may have seen the pen called a pencil. A pencil is frequently a better device than a pen for sketching. I think used a better term.
Sesame noodles adapted from an old newspaper recipe from ages ago
Cold Sesame Noodles
° 1 pound Chinese egg noodles from an Asian grocery.
° 2 tbl sesame oil
° 3 tbl soy sauce
° 2 tbl Chinese sesame paste
° 2 tbl Chinese rice vinegar
° 1 tbl peanut butter
° 1 tbl white sugar
° 1 tbl grated ginger (fresh is important)
° 2 tsp minced garlic
° 1 to 3 tsp chili-garlic paste (I like 2, but depending on how hot you like it)
° half a medium cucumber peeled and seeded but into 1/8" matchsticks
° 1/3 cup chopped roasted peanuts (no skins)
° Add noodles to a big pot of oiling water and cook 'til tender, but slightly chewy. Drain and rinse with cold water. Toss with a bit of sesame oil
° Whisk together the sesame oil, soy sauce. rice vinegar, sesame paste, pb, sugar, ginger, garlic, and chili-garlic paste.
° pour the sauce over the noodles and toss. Garnish with cucumber and peanuts.