The Surface Pen
Image: Microsoft

When Tablet PCs were first introduced in the early 2000s, they didn’t have touch screens (the first combination pen and touch PCs came from vendors like Dell to coincide with the launch of Windows 7), so losing the pen meant you had to resort to a keyboard. With the rise of touch screens, digital pens have become much more a secondary form of input; relegated to drawing and writing. And with the push to create thinner devices with longer battery life, device makers haven’t wanted to sacrifice even a small amount of space for a pen well that would store the pen inside the device.

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But the switch from digital pens that don’t need batteries because they write by interfering with the magnetic field emitted by sensors behind the screen (electro-magnetic resonance) to active digital pens that need power to transmit their position to the grid of sensors (electrostatic transmission) meant thinking not just about storing the pen but charging it.

Replaceable batteries in digital pens usually last at least 18 months, but they’re fiddly to change and use small batteries that aren’t always easy to find—and no-one wants to carry spare batteries around with them. Bluetooth functionality like being able to click a button to open an app or take a screenshot usually means having a second battery; it takes more power and would drain the main pen battery too quickly.

When Microsoft bought N-Trig, the makers of the Surface pen, in 2015 they were talking about building a thin pen with a supercapacitor rather than a battery in, that could be charged in five seconds and work for two hours. A few years down the line, that turned into the Surface Slim Pen for the Surface Pro X; a pen that fitted into a well in the hinge of the snap-on keyboard for storage and charging.

The new Surface Pro 8, Surface Laptop Studio and Surface Duo 2 can all charge the second generation Surface Slim Pen 2. The Pro 8 and Laptop Studio keyboards have similar wells to the Surface Pro X keyboard (although in different places) and the Duo 2 has an optional $65 Pen Cover that can charge it. But while it will write on any PC with a compatible digitizer, like all the previous Surface models and the Duo 2 as well, only the Laptop Studio and Pro 8 will be able to give you the haptic feedback features in Windows 11 with the pen (at least until other hardware manufacturers come out with notebooks and pens with the right haptic hardware built in).

These are also the only devices that currently support the “zero touch” inking mode, where ink starts flowing on screen as soon as you touch the pen to the screen, without you having to apply any pressure; like the haptics, the idea is to make using the pen feel more like writing on paper.

Feeling feedback

Haptic touchpads (which the Surface Laptop Studio also has) give you feedback on how fast you’re scrolling; haptic buttons on the Xbox One wireless controller let you feel how hard you’re squeezing the trigger buttons as well as making the whole controller rumble in your hand in time with the game.

Haptics have been used in touchscreens and touch surfaces like car dashboards to make it feel like you’re pressing a button on something that’s a flat surface with no movement. Simple haptics buzz so you know you’ve hit the right place for the button, but with a more sophisticated haptic waveform, the vibrations make it feel like you’re touching the contours of something that doesn’t exist.

In an industrial system like a robotic arm controller, that feedback can make the operator feel like they’re actually pushing what the robot is pushing, giving you a lot more precision and responsiveness—and not requiring physical buttons that could allow dust or liquid into the controller (especially problematic in a warehouse or factory).

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The Surface Dial uses haptics to make it feel like you’re clicking a button that isn’t there, or turning a knob on a device that actually rotates freely; the haptics also give you feedback on how far you’ve turned it—the more you turn up whatever value you’re changing, the stronger the feedback. The Digital Crown on an Apple watch is similar.

Famously, Haian Zhang, then innovation director at the Microsoft Research Cambridge lab, created a haptic bracelet for a graphics designer with early onset Parkinson’s to counter the tremors that make her hand shake when drawing or writing. Surgeons training with HoloLens use virtual scalpels; joysticks that use haptics to simulate the feel of cutting into different kinds of tissue so they don’t have to practice on cadavers to acquire precision.

And haptics have been showing up in virtual reality controllers like the GamesBond and TORC systems Microsoft Research worked on with KAIST University in South Korea. If you’re using a VR controller to train someone to operate equipment, it’s expensive to create different controllers for every piece of equipment. Haptics can make the same VR controller feel as if you’re holding different kinds of equipment, like a screwdriver, a drill or the handles on a jackhammer, and also give you the feel of operating that equipment. Another project, CaneTroller, is a virtual white cane that lets blind users explore a VR space with haptics.)

TORC is small enough to fit inside a game controller, or even a pen; Microsoft hasn’t said if this is the same technology it’s using in the Slim Pen 2, but it’s a good candidate.

With Windows 11, pen haptics (or tactile, as the Windows interface will call them) will make you hear and feel the click when you tap a button on screen the way you would with a mouse, or even make it clear when you’re hovering over a button, which will help users tap more accurately. Getting haptic feedback when writing or drawing will make the pen feel more like the slight friction of an ink pen drawing on paper, rather than a smooth plastic point gliding over a glass screen. Haptics will also give you feedback so you know you’re successfully circling what you want to select or crossing something out in Word or Excel rather than just drawing a line on top of it.

Microsoft has even talked about having materials in the Fluent design language that correspond to user interface elements that support haptics, so you know to expect the feedback.

The developer support for pen haptics expands significantly on the controls developers had in Windows 10 for working with the Surface Dial. Inking feedback can simulate the feel of different kinds of pens with different tips or nibs—markers, pencils, highlighters, brushes and even erasers. The default is a ballpoint pen. The Windows Ink Platform gives all drawing tools haptic feedback.

Interaction feedback is what gives you the sensation of hovering over or clicking a button; developers can also use that to get your attention as you’re using an app. So, a video editing app can give haptic feedback when you drag two clips together so they line up in the timeline (or maybe even different feedback if they’re overlapping). The most basic haptic feedback is a click: There are also specific kinds of feedback for hovering, pressing or releasing on a control like a slider, buzzing and rumbling, plus feedback that tells you whether what you tried to do with the pen worked or not.

Some pens will be able to control the intensity of haptic feedback and how long it plays for, as well as repeating it.

When Windows 11 was announced, Microsoft confirmed that current Surface pens don’t support the Windows 11 haptics; the Surface Slim Pen 2 is the first of the new haptic pens that they hinted would be coming to the market. If enough software supports it, hopefully it won’t stay the only choice and other Windows 11 PCs will include haptic pens.