We thank CGLive and Wacom Hong Kong for their support!
We have invited Sensei Shuen to demo ink painting at the Hong Kong Illustration and Creative Show on 26 June 2023. Listen to Sensei Shuen (in Cantonese, with English subtitle) as she paints, with tips in using Expresii and WACOM hardware:
Thanks for visiting! Hopefully more people are aware of our invention and effort in digital painting development.
The spec of Windows machine used for the demo:
Basically, you need a good GPU (graphics card) to run Expresii smoothly. e.g. an nvidia 1060 with 6GB vRAM is good for running Expresii smoothly on a 4K monitor. If you're only using a full-HD monitor, you can go by with modern integrated GPU like Intel Iris Xe. For example, the Microsoft Surface Pro 7 (i7) or 8 (i5) can already run Expresii smoothly on their own 2.5k monitor.
We thank CGLive and Wacom Hong Kong for their support!
We did some demos for the Year of the Rabbit 2023 using a Wacom tablet. The great thing about using Expresii is that it gives you organic quality of real brush and ink, but yet you can always undo and redo.
書法 配圖 設計：
Finally, we made a video on Why Expresii is good for improvised sketching and more (in English, with a little intro in Chinese), which includes quotes from some artists:
Ink art is nothing if there's no happy accident.
The cheapest 4K EMR pen display right now is not cheap (USD 829+). Yet, they do not support multi-touch gesture, and are still a bit bulky. Those who have used 2-in-1 or tablets would understand how much I missed touch gestures when I switch back to using a traditional EMR Pen Display from Huion or XP Pen.
new Challenger: Portable Display with pen support
Portable displays - a new category of device that has emerged in recent years. They have progressed quite a lot - you can now connect with a single USB type-C cable and have it powered entirely via the USB cable, its resolution getting up to 4K, with touch and now pen support.
What we tested here is a portable display from ehomewei (their store at Amazon), which looks exactly like this 15.6" pen display branded as LUNE sold as a kickstarter-like item (at USD512 early bird) in Japan. We got a model that doesn't have a G-Sensor, which allows automatic screen orientation change , from TMall at RMB2118 = USD332.
We tested the display with a Surface Book 2, Surface Go, Intel i5 NUC 8 and a desktop with Nvidia GTX 1060. The first three support USB type-C display out for connecting the display using just a single cable.
They claim the screen itself is 4mm, but our measurement reads more like 5.5mm. Together with the stand, our measurement reads more like 14mm instead of the claimed 10mm. Nevertheless, it's still very thin.
The MPP 2.0 Pen
The pen it supports is an active pen complying to the Microsoft Pen Protocol (MPP) 2.0. The included active pen requires AAAA battery to operate just like the Surface Pen, but you can get yourself one that uses rechargeable battery.
Tilt sensing even during hovering. Yes, this device supports pen tilt even during hover! This is something this display being better than a Surface device.
Buttons bug. looks like this display has some bug with button signals. We don't get an eraser signal when we press the lower side button of the included pen. In fact, all tip and the two side buttons give button = 1 if we look at the Diagnostic page of Expresii. That means the side buttons are useless, at least for painting in Expresii. Using another MPP 2.0 pen, we are able to button = 2 when we press the upper side button, so that means we get back the usage of at least one side button. The same pens give eraser signal and button = 2 when we press the lower and upper side buttons respectively on a Surface device, so that's definitely something the ehomewei is missing. Testing further, we found that some apps like Autodesk SketchBook pro gets eraser button signal, but others like Paint Tool SAI 1.2.5, Medibang Paint Pro 26.2 (v2.1.21), and Krita 4.4.5 (using Windows Ink) don't on the ehomewei. On Surface Book 2, SAI, Medibang and Krita all respond to at least one of the side buttons of the same pens as eraser or color picker. We believe this is due to the ehomewei hardware only supporting certain pen API. Hopefully, ehomewei can update their firmware to get this fixed in the future.
Multi-monitor. Wacom's settings tool allows us to map the pen input to either of the monitors if you have say two monitors connected to your PC. There's no such a tool for ehomewei, but we were able to change the mapping by checking 'make this my main display' for the monitor we would like to map the pen input to in Windows 10's setting.
The 4K Screen
The screen is very bright, comparable to a Surface device. We are unlucky to receive one that has a little dust behind the glass surface. That dust is several-pixel-wide so its quite visible. It's rather troublesome to send it back so we may just have to live with it. (╯_╰)
We were not able to get HDR nor 10-bit color working using Intel iGPU Iris 655 or nvidia GTX 1060 using type-C or HDMI cable respectively. Not sure why. They have a built-in 'UltraHDR' option, but as far as we can tell, it only makes the color too bright and saturated - which is rather useless.
We do not have any color calibration hardware to test the gamut but as far as we can tell, colors are rather different from that of a Surface Book 2 out-of-the-box.
Speaker is included but its sound is tiny. Playing YouTube videos, the volume is so low that sometimes it's hard to listen to people speaking. We asked the manufacturer if the other model's built-in G-Sensor can act like a Windows tablet's G-Sensor. The answer is no, so we can't really use it for surface tilting to direct paint flow in Expresii.
You can even pair the pen display with a programmable keypad with dials for a clean setup:
The host PC is an Intel " Bean Canyon " NUC 8 i5 (2018 released; 14nm) with Iris Plus 655 GPU, 8GB RAM. We used this PC because it's compact and support single-cable connection to the display. That 655 GPU is fast for Expresii at FUD display resolution but a little slow at 4K. Anyway, as you can see from the demos, it's still quite usable. If you use a newer NUC like the latest 11th-gen with Iris Xe GPU (10nm), you should get quite a performance boost.
The drawing experience is very much like that of using a Surface device. Same pens stroking on glass surface, except you now have tilt sensing during hover. The display moves back a bit when you stroke on it, just like using a Surface Book in laptop mode. Using it in the 'wedge mode' is stable, but the angle is kind of fixed. You may want to use a adjustable stand if you really want to use it extensively to paint.
Accuracy. The cursor my be a bit off near the screen edges. In comparison, the cursor on my Surface Book 2 follows more closely to the pen tip.
Today, there're basically two major pen sensing tech's: EMR and Active pens. Traditional pen tablet and display use EMR (the ones offered by Wacom, Huion, or XP Pen) and they usually come with thick bezels. Active pens include all the MPP pens (like the newer pens from HP, Dell, or Lenovo ) and also those from the USI camp. They require battery and the sensing modules are usually found as computer built-in's instead of peripherals. Wacom's EMR offers the best in terms of capabilities, as it can sense tilt even during hover, and is the only solution that can sense barrel rotation. Now, this ehomewei display offers tilt sensing during hover too and in this regard, it means you get something even better than what a Surface device gives you. The pen is interchangeable with other Surface Pen compatibles so you have many choices from different brands.
The ehomewei display is essentially a very thin and bright 4K screen that comes with pen and touch input support. When we first saw the Microsoft Surface Studio, we wished that Microsoft would sell the pen-and-touch display separately so that we can upgrade the computer unit instead of having to replace the whole all-in-one computer. Now, this portable display is basically what we asked for.
We're not sure when this would become available globally. ehomewei currently sells their older non-pen models on Amazon. If it does come to your country, you should give it a serious consideration.
2021.07.08 Update: Shuen Leung reported that the ehomewei gives wobbly lines when one tries to draw straight lines slowly. Now, we put our hope for the perfect portable pen display at the XtendTouch Pro, which is supposed to give much better diagonal straight line performance. We can't find an actual purchase link after their kickstarter campaign ended. Hope they're still shipping.
The Sonar Pen
The SonarPen was launched through Kickstarter in 2018. It was primarily designed for iOS and Android smartphones and tablets as a cheap alternative to the expensive styli like the Apple Pencil.
We actually have been in contact with SonarPen's creator Elton Leung since 2018. We were hoping they can add Windows support ever since. To date, there's still no Windows driver but thanks to the support from SpaceDesk, we can now use it for Windows apps too.
We also wished it supports tilt sensing but we're not sure if that would ever happen.
The SpaceDesk app
SpaceDesk is a software tool that allows a host machine to use other machines like tablets as its monitors. Their ability to build a monitor wall is amazing. Recently they added support for relaying pen input too, so it's possible to use SpaceDesk as a wireless Pen Display. With SpaceDesk, we're now able to use SonarPen on Windows apps, including our Expresii that features beautiful organic digital watercolor.
Previously, we tried Easy Canvas Pro (US$5 / year) and SuperDisplay (US$10 one time) for Pen-Display application. Currently, we think SuperDisplay gives the best performance among the three. SuperDisplay does support pen tilt, which is quite important for our app Expresii. SpaceDesk doesn't support pen tilt nor multi-touch gestures yet. SpaceDesk is currently free to use, while they also offer a Business license. Our current recommendation is still SuperDisplay, which is the fastest, the most feature-complete and is inexpensive. We look forward to SuperDisplay supporting the SonarPen.
2021.05.06 Update: you can use USB tethering for faster connection on SpaceDesk.
What can still be added: It'd be great if any of these programs can relay accelerometer/orientation sensor readings and act as a G-Sensor of Windows tablets so that we can directly control paper tilt in Expresii to direct the paint flow. Using other apps like Sensor stream IMU+GPS alongside is no good, as only one app can be in the foreground and nowadays smartphones would have background apps dormant after a few moments. We've tried putting the app in Battery Saving Exception or disable Battery Optimization (on Android 9) but to no vain.
In the above video, we also show the new features of Brush Tilt Control Pad and Auto Settle Timer:
Brush Tilt Control Pad
Paint Settle Timer
You can now stack paint in the same layer by settling paint. We've also added a timer for auto-settling. You can try these new features in a beta version of Expresii, which you can enable by selecting beta option in the System>Advanced tab. Please let us know how you like them.
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)～☆
This is an adaptation of the fluid simulation in Expresii to do Suminagashi ('墨流し' in Japanese), a form of paper marbling. Suminagashi is said to have originated from China and today it's called 水拓畫 in Chinese. What we show here is a WIP (work-in-progress) and has not yet been released in the public version of Expresii.
We show that it's possible to load an image acting as obstacle for the flow, thus creating flow patterns that relate to whatever you put in that image. One useful application is making animated title sequence.
Changing the palette used results in interesting organic patterns. And what about applying the sprayer with suminagashi?
Let us know how you like it.
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!
Earlier this month we were invited to visit NTU, Singapore. Our Dr. Nelson Chu gave a talk titled "The Quest for Digital Ink: developing tools for Painting, Calligraphy & Animation" (Abstract & Bio) on 20th Sept 2019, jointly organised by the School of Computer Science & Engineering, the Alibaba-NTU Joint Research Institute, and the NTU-UBC LILY Center. Dr. Chu shared his journey developing digital brush and paint dating back to 1999. We also met with folks from Cacani the animation system.
We also took the chance to visit the Singapore Zoo, and used Expresii on a 2017 Surface Pro to do some sketch there:
We miss the food there already. （*´▽｀*） We look forward to visiting Singapore again!
Expresii is being used for producing the animated feature film Red Squirrel Mai 紅松鼠米高. Do check out the teaser above (those from China can see it here)! This film uses Expresii extensively - both animation background and foreground are drawn with Expresii. The teaser video is shown at Hong Kong Filmart 2019 earlier this month. We thank Ink Culture Ltd and Rooftop Animation for producing such a meaningful work - this animation is the first one made in Hongkong/China that has a distinct style different from all previous works. It's been only less than two years from the setting up studios in Hong Kong and GuangZhou.
Seeing the teaser of Red Squirrel Mai for the first time reminds me of my feeling when I first saw a Kungfu movie of Bruce Lee - it's different from all the previous 'ink wash animation' I've seen! - Nelson Chu
Note：You need to watch it on 4k uncompressed to really appreciate the difference. Previous "ink animations" often use simulated fume or make things blurry to give an impression of ink. In contrast, the teaser of <Mai> shows texture that is never seen before. 現在的動畫大都是‘單綫平凃’，而之前的’水墨動畫‘基本三類：1 用CG’雲烟’當水墨，2. 把東西 ’模糊化‘ 當水墨 3.用真的水墨筆觸貼圖。而此《紅》樣片出來的效果是有質感的！這個你必須要用4k 原片才感受到。網絡的FHD 版本太失真了！。。。所以才說像李小龍功夫片，李小龍給你的感覺是’真功夫‘，其他人的動作就是沒那麽快，不是同一個層次的。
Ink wash animation is a proud product of China from the 60's to the 80's. Nowadays, many attempts have been made to modernize ink wash animation. Our Expresii does provide a refreshing visual style that couldn't be achieved before.
One of the film Directors of Red Squirrel Mai Angela Wong draw Mai the squirrel, the movie protagonist, on the spot:
Visitors can get a glimpse of of the production processing:
Our Nelson demonstrates calligraphy in the show:
And also some doodles (after the famous comic artist 草日 from Hong Kong):
An inkjet printer was also setup there to print artwork done with Expresii on the spot:
We're lucky to encounter Kumamon as our Mai just stepped out of our booth: ^_^
P.S. Now you know why we have to put up a notice forbidding new users to use Expresii for making feature films till later in 2019. ^_^
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: