It has been one year since the Microsoft Surface Pro 7 was released. We got ourselves an i7 model to test with. We've had it for about a month now and it has been very responsive.
The following is a quick test on its performance. As you can see, it allows fluid digital watercolor in Expresii. In case you can't afford the i7 model, you can still get by with the i5 model, but you may want to use the Fast Mode for more responsiveness.
Did some calligraphy test too:
Don't have the original Surface Pen with us right now, so we picked up a Surface Pen alternative in these tests.
Finally we'd like to show you some sneak peek at some latest development in ink-painting-style animation (水墨動畫) that we are working on. Follow our animator collaborator's Instagram to learn more. Their work is so cool & cute at the same time!
And yes, Surface Pro is used in producing this animation, in case you wonder. (・ωｰ)～☆
The Lenovo Yoga Duet 7i was announced earlier in May this year as a 2-in-1 tablet / laptop computer. The design is very similar to that of the Surface Pro, so we regard the Duet 7i as a Surface Pro competitor.
Digital Pen captures Colors From Real World
Perhaps the highlight of the Lenovo Yoga Duet 7i is its support for the brand new Lenovo E-Color Pen. Among all the pressure-sensitive styli for iPads, Windows or Android devices, the Lenovo E-Color Pen is the first that can capture colors from the real world. Recently, the Apple Pencil was rumored to add such a feature given they filed a related patent application. However, It's not likely Apple would be granted such a patent, as suggested by Jeremy Shu, CEO of Ufro Inc, the company that provides the color capture technology in the E-Color Pen .
The Lenovo E-Color Pen is a rechargeable Wacom AES pen. Its USB-C charging port is hidden behind the color capture module, which unplugs from the top of the pen. The pen is pressure sensitive and drives the cursor when hovering. It doesn't support tilt sensing, but you can use one of the two side buttons to adjust brush tilt in Expresii.
The pen is not magnetic like the Surface Pen, so you can't just stick it to the side of the tablet. Previously Lenovo supplies holder for their active pens that plugs into USB-A ports of the tablets, but now they switched to USB-C for the Yoga Duet 7i so you will need to find another solution if you want to keep it attached e.g. this pen sleeve on Amazon, or the same thing on TMall of China for half the price.
Software Takes the colors & Magic happens
Currently our app Expresii is one of the select apps that natively support the E-Color Pen color capture function. Its watercolor simulation is a good reason for anyone to use it for showing the capture capability beautifully. When you pick a yellow and a cyan from the real world, the virtual paint mixes together to give a nice green and Expresii's watercolor flow further mingles the paint with gorgeous flow patterns in very high resolution. Expresii supports Ufro's Mozbii pen since 2018 and we thank Wacom for linking us up leading to hardware and software innovations working well together.
The following is a video showing general color picking and the use of the pen for Eastern calligraphy on the Yoga Duet 7i. The machine used in the i5 model, but it's already fast enough for using Expresii. There's the i7 option that gives even better performance for you to choose from.
Pen & Keyboard included
I came from the Surface Pro family, and I really prefer the keyboard of the Duet 7i being able to operate via bluetooth when detached. It's good that Lenovo is including both the keyboard and the E-Color pen, at least in the markets of Hong Kong and the Philippines, instead of needing customers to fork out another USD 90 to 160 for a keyboard cover and USD 99 for the official Surface Pen. There're cheaper aftermarket alternatives for both items (like these pen alternatives), but consumers need to shop around separately. The Yoga Duet 7i is called Yoga Duet 2020 in the Chinese market, and a normal Active pen instead of the E-Color Pen is included.
Expresii receives colors from Color King, the proxy software that sends the captured colors to supported apps. Our Expresii not only can directly receive colors from Color King, but it also offers you the option to auto-load single or multiple-colors into the virtual brush. This is a unique feature made possible by the native support for multi-color loading in Expresii. As demonstrated in the above video, you could pick a few colors in sequence to make a gradient in the brush. You then can make strokes with such a gradient for even more interesting marks!
A Coloring Demo
We further demo coloring a piece of ink work using the E-Color Pen. In this demo, we celebrate brush stroke economy. We appreciate watercolor having a life of its own. From the thumbnail, you may not be able to appreciate the simulation quality so we urge you to watch the video:
The following video shows the performance of color capture and making strokes on the i5 version of the Yoga Duet 7i. The color transfer can be immediate. In the above videos, most of the clips are played back at 2x speed up for editing purpose. The following video shows you the performance in real time.
Our app uses GPU for rendering and flow simulation, so it's often the GPU being the bottleneck. If you find it too slow on your machine, we can still enable Quick Stroke Mode (Fast Mode), and Expresii would be more responsive as you stroke. If you're on Win10, it's easy to download this Store Demo version of Expresii for you to test out the performance.
How accurate is the color capture? I'd say pretty accurate, as you can see from our demo videos. I tried picking the neon orange from my sport shirt and the color captured was obviously off. But other than difficult situations like that, it's pretty accurate for the most part.
We appreciate the startup Ufro Inc bringing low-cost color capture tech to the masses. Color sampling devices used to be rather expansive, and only specialized people would buy them. FYI, you can also order Ufro's standalone color picker InstaPick for as low as USD 60. We also appreciate Wacom and Lenovo for adopting the innovation.
We hope that the Lenovo E-Color Pen would be supported on future pen-enabled machines from Lenovo. They just announced the Yoga 9i, which uses Intel’s new and much improved Intel Xe integrated graphics of the 11th Gen CPU. We also wish Lenovo would opt for tilt sensing for their coming pen models. The future looks bright for creative professionals!
🍊🧧 🏮 Best Wishes for the Year Of The Pig 🐖 2019 瑞豬 己亥 迎春 🏮🧧🌱
Ambigram 瑞豬 ⇔ 己亥 迎春
See it displayed on Surface Pro's / interactively
Chinese Characters 漢字 Ambigrams × Paper Cut 紙雕
We designed the ambigram [瑞豬 ⇔ 己亥 迎春] using Expresii's new quarter mode to celebrate the New Year of the Pig. T he year 2019 is marked as [己亥] in the lunar calendar. [迎春] means welcoming spring; [瑞豬] pig that brings luck. Paper Cut is good for showing flip-type ambigrams since you can easily flip the paper to show different sides of the design.
No ordinary Lanterns 不一樣的 🏮 花燈 / 燈籠 🏮
It's common to display lanterns for Lunar New Year. We therefore try our hands on making a few lanterns featuring our ambigram greetings. We wanted to have a blend of tradition & tech and also make the piece interactive so we made an attempt to embed QR code into the design - not just any QR code but ones that can be read from both sides carrying different messages just like an ambigram! To complete such a design, artist ability alone is not enough.
QR Code Ambigrams 也可翻轉的QR CODE
To make our two-sided QR code, we asked Prof. Tim Leung of HKUST to help with the number crunching. Specifically, we need to write a computer program to untie the knot in producing two-sided QR Codes.
'We have a UG student working on this problem. It's a good training for the student, which involves math and (computer) coding,' said Prof. Leung. Our Dr. Nelson Chu, designer behind the ambigrams and lanterns, is an alumnus of HKUST and hopes to get current HKUST students inspired by interesting projects like this. ’This is a typical real-world problem we need to solve everyday. In contrast, usually clear instructions are given in a school assignment. But now one needs to be critical and be able to judge the correctness in the information gathered', said Dr. Chu. 'There may be more solution to one problem, and some hidden issues yet to be solved.'
抱有懷疑態度是做研究的基本；我們應保持好奇的心去探索 -- Prof. Tim Leung
The following are a few of the QR Codes we made:
And here comes the Moment of Truth - see if the two-sided QR Codes work in the following video: (*ﾟﾛﾟ)
And if you are to try out our 2-sided QR codes, note that some QR code scanners would only give the message from one side because they would flip the input automatically. We use this scanner on Android, which can read the two messages.
This lantern creation is a perfect example of STEAM ( STEM+Art) projects. Apart from trying to get involved in multi-discipline activities, we strongly encourage students to learn computer programming regardless their majors. Being able to program a computer is empowering. You don't need to wait for someone to make a program suitable for your needs, you can just create one whenever creativity strikes! Being able to make the first move and create something never existed before makes you a leader rather than a follower.
STEM 是美國先提倡，然後香港、台灣等地跟隨。我們其實一直做的就是STEAM的工作：從一開始用 物理原理 模擬 毛筆，用 流體力學 做 數碼水墨，到現在開發 中文 翻轉字 (ambigramアンビグラム) 工具，全部都把藝術、文化、科技等結合，做出前所未有的新產品。我們非常歡迎各學校共同辦好STEAM 教育，讓我們的學生Future Ready，迎接未來的挑戰！東方文化有很多值得發展的地方，希望一天我們是領導者，而不是跟隨者。╭( ･ㅂ･)و )))
職場上通常是藝術系的只會藝術，工科的只會工科；雇主如遇到有跨領域能力的員工應該興幸，因他們能幫你解決其他人解決不了的問題 -- Dr. Nelson Chu
P.S. We'll post making-of for the laterns in a later blog entry. Stay tuned.
'Flip' Icon made by Vaadin from www.flaticon.com
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.
You need the base
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).