We were excited ever since the first Surface Book came out in 2015, since it gave the option for a discrete GPU. Now we have a chance to test with a Surface Book 2, thanks to Microsoft for providing the hardware for testing.
We are provided with the 13.5" model. Coming from the 12" Surface Pro, I like the bigger screen size. The hardware feels really solid and clean. And of course, with an nvidia GTX 1050, we get very good performance, although it gets a bit hot and the fan would kick on.
When you detach the base, the GPU performance drops significantly, so you would like to attach the base when you use Expresii. In fact, when I detached the base and held the tablet part only, I realized how convenient the kickstand of the Surface Pro is! Note that the tablet part doesn't have any USB port (or video port), so you can't really use it in place of, say, a Surface Pro. I believe they designed it for only brief detachment like for the case of quick presentations.
See the calligraphy process video in Youtube:
Lunar new year day was 16th of Feb, 2018. We wish you all the best for the new year of the dog!
Now it's being a tradition we play with the Chinese character for the year. This year, we play with the character 狗, which means dog:
Recently, ambigram is popular around East Asia, so we make one that reads dog and shows a dog 90-deg turned.
And notice how we use pen tilt to make organic marks.
Chinese characters give you so much room for imagination! We can't stop playing with them!
Only Expresii gives you this level of expression with brush and ink!
Earlier this month, our Dr. Nelson Chu, along with two more alumni , was invited to speak in an alumni sharing session by HKUST. You can review the whole sharing here. Nelson showed our ground-breaking app Expresii on a tablet computer to the audience.
Digital Art not real art? 數位藝術不是真藝術？
During the Q&A section, Nelson was asked to comment on how to deal with people saying digital art is not real art. To answer this, let's first assume people don't regard digital art as real art because they think operations like undo and redo mean cheating. Let's here what Nelson has to say:
One may say there's no mistakes in art so there's no need for undo. Okay, then let's regard undo's and redo's as opportunities to go back and forth in time. - Nelson Chu
'Long time ago when the Western fountain pen got introduced to the East, people might say "pen calligraphy" is not calligraphy. Only brush calligraphy is. But now people accept that pen calligraphy is also calligraphy' said Nelson.
Nelson is a firm believer of digital calligraphy. See how he does digital calligraphy with his own tool Expresii:
From the above videos, you see how undo's and redo's allowed more flexibility and save time to create the perfect design without wasting paper. (^(エ)^)
Embracing New Tools
In deed, if you look at the history of writing tools in East Asia, you will see we keep adding new tools to our arsenal over the years. If we insist that a new tool has to act exactly like what came before it, there wouldn't have been brush calligraphy in the first place because we would still be using carving knifes to write.
We should really embrace new technology and explore what we can do with it.
Changing Business Model
Another possible reason why people don't consider digital art real is that they can't sell it to galleries or collectors like they do with works done in physical media. People are concerned that artists (along with a whole ecosystem of art dealers) can not make a living if there are no originals (vs. digital copies) to sell.
To respond to this, firstly, we'd like to emphasis that artistic value is NOT market value. If we stick to the question of whether something is real art we should really judge it by its artistic value. Whether it sells or not is a completely different story. For a painting, we judge its artistic value by e.g. the use of colors or composition, which you can also find in digital art.
Second, business models can adapt to changes. A century ago, musicians made a living by performing live. With the invention of sound recorder, musicians don't lose their job simply because there is a way to playback their music. Instead, a whole ecosystem of record companies & distributors came into existence. And then came the digital age, when people don't buy CD's as often. Record companies could blame digital music making it easy to pirate. Then Apple fights the problem by providing a way to get legit music easier than looking for pirated copies. And if you think those big companies are paying artists too little royalty , now independent artists can sell their music, art or tutorials via sites like Gumroad with a much bigger cut, effectively democratizing art selling by creators.
Brush as a Simple Circle
When Apple introduced the Apple Pencil, I was thrilled to find out the Apple Pencil supporting tilt. Eastern calligraphy appeared two times in their launch video. The first one is writing '書' in red (below).
Since its early versions, Painter has been using 'dots within a circle' as the brush footprint to give a 'bristle' effect (video below). Procreate seems to use a similar method to do bristle effect - the dab could be a captured image instead of one generated on the fly. Interestingly, Adobe's 3D brushes give effect similar to what these 2D brushes give - the 3D nature seems to be not put into good use. In fact, when Samsung's latest Galaxy Book tablet was announced, demonstrators actually had a hard time showing off the new pen tilt feature with Photoshop, because no matter how they tilted the brush, they still got strokes as if done in 2D without tilt support. By the way, when a brush is enlarged, why does it start to sprinkle smaller version of itself?
Our Efficient 3D brush model
In order to capture the nuance we normally get when using a real brush, we devised a more efficient 3D brush model. By efficient we mean we don't need to model it as 'individual bristles' as in Adobe's 3D brushes , and yet we believe we get more stroke variations than they do. Our brush model also looks and acts more like a real brush instead of a brush made of stiff wires. All in all, we believe our brush is the most natural and intuitive to use among all paint apps available today.
I can only recognize two characters '秋月' from what is written in the second appearance of Eastern calligraphy above so let's try writing the same characters in different styles in Expresii:
And another demo '筆墨' for you. In Expresii, every stroke has its own character, its personality. You can 't make the same stroke twice.
And I love doing designs like the following using Expresii. You can do designs quickly and easily just like using a real Chinese brush.
And don't just take our words. See what Shaun Bryant has to say:
I'm loving how quickly and easily I can make vastly different marks in Expresii
High resolution Rendering
We all know that raster-based paint programs are good for stroke richness but you can't really zoom in too much. Adobe came up with a solution of generating vector graphics  for high resolution rendering. For this to work, you're effectively switching entirely to their vector-based tool, namely Illustrator. When enlarged, you see many individual polygons overlapping each other (below). Personally, I don't think it looks too pretty nor natural, not to mention the added burden of rendering thousands of polygons. (๑´╹‸╹`๑)
We came up with an entirely different solution to the fat pixel problem. We can zoom in a lot, but the marks still look natural. Jony Ive ended Apple's launch video with "gives you the ability to touch a single pixel". And here I'd like to say we give you to ability to zoom in a lot without seeing a single pixel. (￣▽￣)ノ
In summary, we hope to do Eastern Calligraphy justice with our software tech :
People complain about the younger generation being occupied by gadgets and too few are doing traditional arts. If you are an educator involved with art or East Asian languages, please consider joining us for this digital calligraphy revolution. Technology and art are not mutually exclusive. You can start teaching digital calligraphy today. Together, we'll work to revitalize this ancient art form. Leave a comment below or message via Facebook, Twitter or whatever. Thank you!
 from their paper "Industrial-Strength Painting with a Virtual Bristle Brush", 2010. [cached copy]
2017.04.30 Update: we are informed that the piece of calligraphy was done by Prof 王冬齡, and in the video, the shot should be showing him signing his name '冬齡'. [ref 1] [ref 2]
Made a few animated GIF for the new year with Expresii.
This one is a design made using the Chinese character 鷄 , which means Chicken:
Running chicken 走雞：
'Sleep well on the 3rd day of the new year':
Essentially these animations are done using the Overlay as onion skin. You can also apply LightBox effect on the Overlay. You can toggle the Overlay via hotkeys ~ ` to alpha = 0 and 1. We output the frames to another program to do cropping or composition, and then feed the final frames to an online GIF maker to make the GIFs.
The following videos shows some of the stroking process:
Finally here is a Lion Dance greeting GIF made by Rooftop Animation using Expresii (along with Photoshop, etc) for the new year:
Digital Ink - moving forward
Another Connected Ink event was recently held in Tokyo by Wacom for the promotion of digital ink. Nearly 200 industry leaders from various global technology and stationery companies took part in this event. During the event, Wacom CEO Masahiko Yamada announced the establishment of the Digital Stationery Consortium, Inc., whose mission is to create a movement with cross-industry partners to make digital ink widely adopted and to promote the evolution of smart digital stationery.
One of the presenters was Kuretake , a famous Japanese stationery brand whose root is in making traditional Eastern ink and related art supply. Mr. Suguru Takemoto from Kuretake Marketing talked about the "History of Handwriting – roots of ink” and Expresii was used for digital calligraphy demonstration during his presentation on stage:
Expresii was also used to demo Wacom's AES pens, which are found in today's various Windows tablets, including the HP Elite x2:
Check out the AES pen ID demo and more from our previous blog entry on CES Asia & Connected Ink Shanghai.
Digital Ink Calligraphy - Pen or Brush?
Today 'digital ink' is often referred to as the digital counterpart of physical ink used with a pen. It's often rendered as rather uniform-looking lines.
However, if you mention '墨' (the Chinese character for 'ink') to a Japanese or a Chinese, the first thing they think of is the ink used in their traditional art forms, which inspired great artists like Picasso and Matisse.
'Brush Calligraphy' is one of the most important art forms in East Asian countries like China, Japan and Korea. For thousands of years, East Asians have been using brushes instead of pens to write. For lack of a better word, I could only translate an East Asian Brush as 'writing brush' - because it's designed specifically for expressive lines as required in Eastern calligraphy. Another difference between Western and Eastern calligraphy is the paper used. Eastern art papers are absorbent and you can get a wide range of effects depending on the paper type and how diluted the ink is. There are even a few types of ink that you can choose from giving you even more variations.
In the future, we might create a new app specific for this ancient Eastern art form, making it easy for users to use subtle ink effects like these:
And in response to Wacom's effort in promoting digital stationery, here is a calligraphy piece '文房具', which means Stationery in Japanese, done by our Dr. Nelson Chu earlier:
Let us know if you'd like to see an app specific for Eastern calligraphy from us.
We recently acquired a Teclast X16 Power, which uses the same Intel Atom CPU z8700 as the MS Surface 3 does. It can be paired with an 'active' stylus (it's not clear exactly what Teclast meant, but it looks like its AES - Active EletroStatic), which supports pressure but not tilt. The biggest difference from an traditional EMR stylus is that this Active pen doesn't support hovering meaning that you do not know exactly where you're hitting the surface until you actually hit it.
We tried doing calligraphy on it. The pen tip is so firm - we actually need to update Expresii's Pressure Adjustment range so that we can stroke without pressing too hard on the screen (the tip would scratch the protective film that came with the machine). We also encountered the broken paper texture bug that some of our users reported earlier on this new machine on Win 10. With this machine on our hands, we are able to do something to avoid this bug, at least on our X16 Power. In case you still get such a bug even with the latest update of Expresii, please let us know.
This X16 Power is priced similarly as the Cube i7 Stylus we tried earlier. It has a bigger screen but a slower processor (4o-sth FPS vs 60-sth FPS in Expresii Full mode). It consumes less power and thus has much better thermal (stays cool, fanless) than the Cube i7 . The speed is not ideal for Expresii Full, but it's a rather low-cost machine that you can also use with Android 5, in addition to Windows 10. You can also get a keyboard cover free (depending on the seller). It has 8GB of RAM - as if it's a top model of the MS Surface Pro line ^_^. Overall, it's a not-bad tablet if you don't feel like spending a whole bunch (for comparison the cheapest 2GB-RAM Surface 3 is ~$400 right now).
Best wishes for the Year of the Monkey! More graphics for the New Year here.
We thank the organizer of TypeMeet 字體聚 ‘本地薑’ , a seminar for topics on font and character designs, for letting us show our work there. It's encouraging that so many attended the public talks.
The talks focused on design topics happening locally. One problem we face today is that the current design tools mostly cater for Western ways of doing things. We need more tools like Expresii so that we can more efficiently create digital works that inherits our own culture.
日前我們參加了字體聚 ‘本地薑’ 研討會。會中講者提及：為什麼西方typeface 跟手寫字很接近，但中文的typeface 跟我們手寫的是那麼的不同？那是因為我們都用了西方的一套來做中文（第一套中文印刷體是西方人造的）。
目前中文字形的建立比歐文艱鉅得多，因為太多字，而且用西方的一套outline font 形式表達中文書法字體往往不適合。我們是不是要檢討一下，有沒有其他方式去表達中文？加入像Expresii 般的font rendering system 可能是一條出路。
中國書法，歷史悠久。電腦時代，何從適配？最近一批廉價 Windows平板電腦湧現，再配以 Expresii Lite 軟件系統，一個真正便攜又廉價的數位書法方案便誕生了！
Authentic Digital Chinese Calligraphy! 真。數位書法不是夢！
[Continuing from last blog entry] We first try the original stylus included in the PiPO W5 package. We found that it's not as easy to control as the other styli from Hanvon that we have. Check out the test video below. We keep getting bad strokes due to the less-than-ideal pressure control and the friction of the stylus tip against the screen. Fortunately, using the other styli that we have, we get better control and are able to get some nice results.
[續上回] 感覺 PiPO W5 原來的筆，筆壓操控沒那麼好：輕壓力容易劃不到線，壓重一點又很容易變得太粗。換了一支大一點的漢王筆，這筆比起wacom intuos 的筆要硬，但在這塊 W5上用卻發揮剛好。W5 本身驅動沒有如 Wacom 自帶的壓感輕重調控，日後如加入這樣的軟體調控，望可有幫助。
Below is another session with the larger stylus. Notice how organic the strokes are! These styli do not support tilt angle sensing, but the resultant strokes are not bad. We of course still want tilt sensing (available in high-end graphics tablets) for best results. :) Tablet makers, are you listening? 這些筆都沒有斜度感應，筆劃還好，但當然我們還是想要斜度感應的，書法嘛，就是要以筆的操控來畫出美的線條啊～
Below shows yet another session with the large stylus. The Atom Bay Trail used here is a very low-power CPU. Because of that, we cannot make very fast strokes without jaggedness. However, we are still very impressed by Intel's advances in their GPU-integrated CPU's. As you can see from the videos, zooming in to see stroke details is no problem, although it's not the smoothest experience like we have on desktops. To appreciate the advances, be informed that the 4 year-old TabletPC HP Touchsmart TM2 gives a mixed performance gain/loss compared to the Pipo W5 (table below) but is actually more than 5 times heavier!
Performance Comparison running Expresii Lite:
Start-up 18 13 sec.
Stroking 65 49 FPS
Idle 200* 110 FPS
Zoom Pan 20 75 FPS
* The max FPS is capped to 200.
Potentially the W5 can give better performance, as the CPU boost rarely pushes it to the maximum of 1.8GHz (ref.: the last video below).
In the last video below, we show again a comparison of the original W5 stylus and another Hanvon stylus. You can literally hear the sound of friction as we get a broken line in this video. Maybe a matte screen protector can solve the problem? 除了壓感，原w5的筆還有摩擦問題啊，換一張屏幕保護膜可解決嗎？
In conclusion, we now have a very good candidate for an education tablet for school students. These Windows tablet are easy to carry, certainly much cheaper then an iPad, and are capable of running millions of .EXE applications already exist in the Windows ecosystem - be it content-creation or office applications, for examples. Android tablets can compete in terms of prices, but are quite limited in terms of applications. Professionals would probably opt for more capable (and more expensive) Windows tablets which are also available now. And, you know, if you still need to use some Android applications, you can always try an Android emulator like DuOS-M (paid) or Droid4X (free).
Next blog entry, we will try sketching with the W5.
Finally, we wish you a Merry Christmas and happy painting in 2015!