WACOM INKLING: DIGITIZING PEN & PAPER SKETCHES
THE GOOD, THE PAD, AND THE UGLY
Early Spring, 2012
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by Eden Maxwell
I was excited to learn about Wacom’s new piece of technology for artists.
As Wacom describes it: “Inkling bridges the gap between traditional, freehand sketching and digital development by capturing a digital likeness of a pen-on-paper sketch.”
Based on the concept, as I understood it, I felt Inkling would be a portable timesaving tool I could use for my fine art drawings while having a cappuccino at Starbucks.
My main concern was how faithful would my strokes be persevered from Inkling to my computer for later refinement. Keep in mind that “likeness” is the operative word, as it doesn’t necessarily imply precision, which pretty much sets the tone for this art-sketching gadget.
As you draw on a pad or notebook, your strokes are digitally captured and stored inside the Inkling 2GB flash drive, which can also be used to store music or other compatible files. You can then upload your preliminary drawing onto your computer and finesse the artwork with your art editing software.
NOTE: If you have a Mac, don’t try reformatting the Inkling flash drive to a Mac configuration. Inkling’s flash drive will only work to receive your artwork when formatted as MS-DOS fat 16 or 32.
THE GOOD: THE WORKING BASICS
The Inkling digital sketch pen captures a digital likeness of your work while you sketch with its ballpoint tip on any sketchbook or standard piece of paper. You can set preferences with the included Sketchbook Manager software to more precisely select options, including your paper size, which adds to the digital fidelity of the drawing—from Inkling's receiver to your computer.
Inkling is best for rough preliminary work, not for final artwork since it captures many strokes fine, but can falter easily, too, as strokes drop out or are misaligned in the digitizing process. After completing your sketch, you can refine your work on your computer using your art editing program and one of Wacom’s graphics tablets, or if you’re fortunate enough, a spiffy Cintiq.
Capturing your sketch, stroke-by-stroke is but the beginning. Inkling also allows you to create layers in digital files while you sketch on paper. These digital files are then transferred to your computer (mini USB cable). Then, using the Inkling Sketch Manager software, you can export your Inkling files to Adobe Photoshop (bitmapped) or Illustrator (vector) for post-production. You can also use the Inkling Sketch Manager software to edit, delete, add layers or change file formats.
EUREKA MOMENTS CAPTURED
Many of us have heard how brilliant rough artwork, such as logos, trademarks, products, and services were jotted down on a napkin or even a matchbook cover. This is where Inkling comes in, as it performs best for early on sketches developed for concept illustrations and storyboards, or one of those eureka art moments.
Keep in mind that Inkling is not for capturing precise inking needed for polished artwork or sketches that require symmetry, or perfect geometric figures and lines—such requirements, however, may to some degree be achieved later on by tweaking the sketch with the appropriate software.
GRAPHICS TALBET SANS TABLET
What makes the Inkling different from a graphics tablet is that the pen also has a ballpoint nib in the end. This feature allows you to create a traditional drawing in your notebook while simultaneously creating a digital version. Sketching with Inkling is more tactile than a tablet or iPad, as the sensation of drawing on paper provides a more satisfying feeling and rewarding experience for many artists.
Consisting of both hardware and software, the Inkling digital sketch pen system includes the pen and a wireless receiver that captures a likeness of the sketch and stores it digitally. The hardware (the charging case and components as a whole) represents the best-designed aspect of the product.
LINE OF SIGHT
To setup the Inkling system, you clip the compact receiver to the edge of a sheet of standard paper or your sketchbook. The receiver position can be adjusted for left or right-handed users, providing the receiver with the required uninterrupted line of sight with the pen cone tip that relies on senstive infrared sensor technology.
After your sketch is complete, the receiver is then connected to the your computer via a mini USB cable to transfer the digital files. Next, your sketch files are opened with the included Inkling Sketch Manager software, which allows you to manage layers or change file formats before transferring them for adjustment and editing in other creative software applications.
Depending on sketch complexity, Inkling can store hundreds if not thousands of drawings; you can export layered files from the Sketch Manager software directly to Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator (CS3 or newer), including Autodesk Sketchbook Pro (2011 or newer), or Autodesk SketchBook Designer. Alternatively, files can be saved in JPG, BMP, TIFF, PNG, SVG and PDF formats for use with other applications.
PEN: DIGITAL LEGERDEMAIN
The ballpoint pen uses Wacom pressure-sensing technology to detect how hard the pen is being pressed to the paper while sketching. These pressure variations are designed to appear in the digital version of your drawing—a result that eluded my tests. But it still may be possible by experimenting with the brush size, ballpoint diameter, and pen pressure, which you can adjust in the Sketchbook Manager’s preferences.
Pen comfort is an issue. The Inkling pen is fat (sensor technology requires room) and I got used to it without straining my hand; pen shape is always a personal preference that must be field-tested. Although the pen has a ballpoint tip, the pen will continue recording your strokes, even if you should run out of ink.
When sketching, your Inkling captures a digital likeness of your drawing. To accomplish this bit of digital legerdemain, Inkling uses sophisticated ultrasonic and infrared technologies.
There is one major restriction for Inkling to work: You must have the pen and paper situated so that that the pen cone tip has an unobstructed line of sight to the receiver. If not, your strokes will not be recorded.
As for sketching with Inkling at Starbucks, I would have to be inside, not in one of their outdoor cafe areas, as direct sunlight may well hinder the sensor technology from working. Note too that if the receiver is moved from its original position on the paper in the slightest, images can easily slip out of alignment, an annoying event that you don’t discover until the sketch is uploaded to your computer.
CHARGING IN STYLE
Inkling will fully charge within 3 hours, yielding a typical work time of up to 15 hours for the pen and up to 8 hours for the receiver. The pen and receiver store and recharge in an elegant compact case that is easy to transport.
In all my testing both the pen and receiver remained sufficiently charged to record and digitize my drawings.
THE PAD: PAPER
One of Inkling’s strengths is that it doesn’t require expensive specialized pre-treated paper to digitize your pen strokes. Although you can use any standard paper or Sketchbook, Inkling is optimized for digital recognition using a page size of A4/letter, portrait orientation.
While Inkling can be used on larger paper formats, it will only record a drawing area within the A4 size. Inkling will not record strokes made within a narrow zone—0.8 inches (2 cm) of the receiver.
But you aren’t limited to the work area of the A4 size paper. You can also select other paper sizes if they’re listed as an option (A4, 5, 6, 7, legal, junior legal, and letter) in the Sketchbook Manager preferences. Selecting the paper size and orientation of the receiver improves Inkling’s ability to record your strokes, as made with pen on paper.
Glaringly absent from this selection of paper sizes is the 9x12 inch format, which is ubiquitous among sketchbooks. The A5 paper size comes close at 8.3x11.7 inches.
THE UGLY: SKETCH MANAGER SOFTWARE
The idea behind the Inkling Sketch Manager software is to help you save time. And to that purpose, it features many good tools for manipulating your Inkling sketches. However, despite Sketch Manager’s ambitious goals, many of the features are poorly developed.
Sketch Manager acts as a required portal into other options. As previously noted, you can add, delete, and combine layers, and then save your sketch files in the needed format, or export them, with layers intact, to your art editing applications.
You can also use Sketch Manager to: quickly email a sketch to a colleague or client; calibrate the pressure of your pen and the ballpoint diameter; establish the orientation relationship between the receiver and the paper; and to select your paper size.
Let me add full disclosure here: Before condemning Inkling's performance and in general, I always defer to pilot error, which often turns out to be the case. My recommendation is to experiment without adjusting any of Inkling's settings for a baseline and then go from there. You'll find that Inkling works best with larger uncomplicated strokes, as intricate strokes on a smaller scale can fade or get lost in translation.
STODGY SOFTWARE: OLD SCHOOL
From the Sketch Manager Preview screen, you can view your sketches stored inside the “My Sketches” folder in the receiver. From this screen, you can save or open any sketch for further adjustment. For example, If you forgot to add layers while you were drawing, you’re not out of luck. You can make such changes with Inkling Sketch Manager.
Unfortunately, although many of its tools like adding layers and the layer separation feature are handy, Sketch Manager is a bit archaic, mostly counter-intuitive, and obtusely designed with confusing icons. The software is quirky, and seemingly oblivious to contemporary operating system standards..
Sketch Manager is also remiss in not offering the click-and-drag feature that we’ve all grown to love; you have to use stodgy old scroll bars to move images around, including zoom in and out.
DRAG AND DROP: WHERE ART THOU?
Sketch Manager displays the directory on your hard drive in a tree view. When you click the expand arrow to reveal the contents of your Inkling sketches folder, you won’t see the image files; to reveal them you have to double-click the folder to open it, which seems counter-intuitive to what we are used to. It would also be more efficient if you could drag-and-drop an Inkling file directly onto your Inkling sketch folder displayed in the tree view directory.
Also, right clicking on the toolbar, makes the toolbar disappear, and there was no apparent way to restore it without having to restart the app. I later discovered through trial and error that right clicking the toolbar area again brought up the on/off toolbar icon—which doesn’t always work and is hardly intuitive. For the most part, Inkling forces you to read its User’s Manual. Otherwise, you will be scratching your head.
NOTE: The Inkling Sketch Manager will only display export icon buttons for those supported applications found on your computer.
LAUNCHING: INKLING, WE HAVE A PROBLEM
Exporting my Inkling files to Adobe Illustrator went smoothly with my strokes now appearing as editable vectors. But when I repeatedly tried exporting an Inkling file to Photoshop, Adobe Premiere launched instead. Eventually, I had a hunch and put Premiere in the trash. Now, when I tried exporting an Inkling file to Photoshop, the script worked, as Inkling now suddenly ‘knew’ to launch Photoshop, not Adobe Premiere—which I returned to my apps folder.
Another bothersome feature is Sketch Manager’s insistence on launching at startup, whether you want to or not. Sketch Manager has to be running on the system so that when you connect your Inkling, it can be identified and the sketches viewed. But there is no option to turn this off. A workaround for keeping Sketch Manager from launching at startup is editing the ‘com.wacom.SketchManager.plist’ file, which is hardly an elegant solution.
Given these current limitations, think of Sketch Manager as the middleman with good intentions gone awry. In its present state, using this gateway app sparingly is a good idea, as is then quickly moving on to your art editing software. You have to determine if the entire Inkling cycle from rough layout to further editing is a mere novelty or worth your time and effort.
As Inkling records your drawing, you can also use the Sketchbook Manager to play it back stroke-by-stroke to see how the drawing evolved. The “scrubber” feature allows you to isolate specific strokes of your drawing, which you can then separate into individual layers, a feature that makes sense after a few attempts.
You can also combine layers by holding down the “ctrl” button on your keyboard, select all of the layers that you want to combine, and then click on the “plus” sign to combine them into a single layer. When you are finished processing your drawings inside Sketchbook Manager, you can export them directly to one of the supported art editing apps.
VERSION 1.0 RHYTHM AND BLUES
The Sketchbook Manager export function acts as a gateway for transferring your drawings into other applications; your exported files will include all of the layers that you created by using the Inkling receiver layers button or the layers that you created in the Sketch Manager software—indicating that some creative thought ‘did’ go into the software’s development.
Inkling has not yet been marketed abroad. It was only recently introduced to the U.S. market in limited numbers, so it’s a new product that’s manifesting version 1.0 shortcomings. As this is Sketch Manager version 1.01.425, we can look forward to improvements (rewrite the UI) with the next software release.
Wacom has always been a leader in hardware design. I'm confident that they will improve upon stroke fidelity from paper to digital files.
WORKING WITH INKLING
After experimenting with many Inkling drawings, here are a few of my observations.
As one would expect from Wacom, the packaging as well as the Inkling charging case and components are first-rate. The case neatly houses the pen, replacement nibs, USB cable, receiver, and charging system. I found that while the linearly challenged mini USB cable fits inside the charging case, its length might be better suited for laptops. Attaching the receiver with the short mini USB cable to my iMac was awkward, but still manageable. You can buy a longer mini USB cable if necessary.
The pen charging LED is supposed turn green when fully charged. In fact, it remains red, which may be a software issue that can possibly be corrected with a firmware update. To add layers to your work while sketching, you must touch a button on the receiver, which may move, causing misaligned strokes or none at all.
While working, touch the receiver when required, but gently and firmly, making sure your paper or sketchbook doesn’t shift, either.
Squeezing the receiver clip informs Inkling that you’re adding a new sheet of paper. The new layer LED lights momentarily to indicate that a new page and sketch file has been created. If you inadvertently create a new page, which is not difficult when touching the receiver, a new digital file is created—and there's no going back at this point. After a while, you pick up on Inkling’s behaviors so you can focus on the sketch, not the technology.
After working on diverse paper types (smooth to rough and a variety of thicknesses—made no difference), paper orientations, and pen pressure attempts, Inkling captured many longer strokes with remarkable fidelity. But such performance was inconsistent. For example, strokes that met seamlessly together on paper would frequently be out of alignment in the Inkling digital file.
Applying varying levels of pressure in my pen strokes often didn’t translate as expected—more pressure didn’t add weight, or strokes were too dark or too light. Sometimes making identical strokes resulted in different effects such as being misaligned, overlapping, or fading out completely. Keeping my sketches simple and on a larger scale translated into more faithful digital captures.
WHY NOT SIMPLY SCAN?
Wouldn’t it be easier to simply scan a sketch on paper instead of working with the multi-step Inkling system? It might be easier, but you couldn’t, for example, apply layers to your sketch, or later isolate strokes with the Sketch Manager Scubber tool, which can be a big plus if that’s part of your sketch workflow. And since Inkling is so compact and lightweight, it’s not a burden to carry about.
GRAPHICS—NOT WORDS OR NUMBERS
Subtlety is not Inkling’s strong suit, as it was designed to digitize strokes for rough layout graphics use. If you’re more interested in word and number recognition, then try the Lifescribe Smartpen system, which is better suited to record such work.
THE MARKET: GREAT EXPECTATIONS
If you’re considering the Inkling, note that it won’t be a replacement for a Wacom graphics tablet. Inkling is not, as previously mentioned, a tool for accuracy or final art.
So, who might put Inkling to good use?
It can be a convenient portable tool for the inveterate doodler or anyone who has a facile hand for drawing comps on the fly. Although I haven’t taken a poll, I’m sure that illustrators, art directors, fashion designers, and storyboard people are already using a Wacom tablet or Cintiq. But this same group also comes to mind as a target market. As they’re not always at their computer to sketch, Inkling could fill that void nicely when they are on the go.
The jury is still out about how useful Inkling will be for this artist. But that doesn’t mean that it won’t over time become a truly functional hi-tech sketching tool in my studio and travels. If Wacom can improve upon the Sketch Manager software and pen to digital fidelty, they will have another winner to add to their line of useful and innovative products.
If you buy the Inkling now and keep your expectations free from unrealistic performance considerations, as pointed out in this article, you won’t be disappointed.
Inkling Digital Pen
Rechargeable Pen battery
Pen ink cartridge
Rechargeable Receiver Battery
Spare pen ink cartridges (4)
Inkling Sketch Manager Application (located on the Inkling receiver)
Quick Start Guide and electronic User’s Manual
Windows 7, Vista or XP (SP3, 32 or 64 bit versions),
Mac OS 10.4.0 (or later)