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tech nomad

Tech tries to bridge the gap from handwriting to digital

MyScript’s Nebo is a handwritten note-taking app.
MyScript
MyScript’s Nebo is a handwritten note-taking app.

It seems all my life there’s been hand-wringing about handwriting.

There was, of course, my own literal version, when a team of nuns forced my chronically cramping left paw through grueling penmanship drills — the triple lines stretching across the training paper like barbed wire.

But it was just a few years after that, when the Smith Coronas in our junior high typing lab started making way for the clicking keyboards of plump first-generation Macintoshes, that you could really feel the uncertainty starting to gather around the fate of handwriting.

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And rightly so, by the time I reached college in the early ’90s, all the wild character of my characters had been tamed into sexless Times New Roman (or, when I needed to pad out a paper, Courier New). Only my half-filled journals and the recipients of rent checks knew the secret life of my chicken scratch.

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Fast-forward to today, the era of the smartphone and the touchscreen, and handwriting seems to have vanished without even leaving a farewell note. But if a growing movement within the educational community opens enough of a market for the tech sphere to fill, handwriting may be due for a comeback.

Recent studies have suggested that handwriting “may facilitate reading acquisition in young children,” as it recruits several regions of the brain closely associated with reading. Down the line, handwritten class notes lead to a deeper conceptual grasp of material than notes taken on laptops, studies suggest.

Meanwhile, both Alabama and Louisiana passed laws last year mandating proficiency in cursive, making 14 states to put the requirement on paper.

As such, there appears to be a mounting effort in tech circles to more effectively bridge handwriting and the digital platforms where students and writers do most of their work.

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We’ve already seen many a stylus come and go. Apple has been attempting to make this happen from its primordial Newton to its current Pencil, and we’ve seen similar implements from Samsung, LG, and others.

But only recently are products coming to market (both apps and hardware) that draw an unbroken line between the hand and the screen. Call them noteworthy.

The Livescribe 3 smartpen, for instance, may sound instantly frivolous as most household objects with the smart- prefix inevitably do, but it’s quite clever and useful. Using an infrared camera, ARM processor, Bluetooth Smart chipset, and flash memory, the Livescribe pen works in tandem with a specialty Moleskine notebook to transmit handwritten notes in real time directly to a tablet or smartphone. From there, text can be instantly converted to type, edited, and shared. The pen can even record audio as your write, and tapping your notes will playback whatever audio was recorded at that moment in your writing.

The Moleskine edition goes for $230, which seems expensive until you consider that’s less than half the price of that halfway decent Mont Blanc lying dead in your underwear drawer — and those don’t do anything but broadcast you have some fancy job somewhere.

The Canon-owned IRIS also recently debuted a new smartpen, the IRISnotes 3, which rather than using a (pricey) proprietary notebook employs a clip-on transmitter (that may be a bit of a pain in practice). On the upside, the conversion system for the IRISnotes 3 recognizes 30 languages, and can capture notes, graphs, and diagrams. You can use it to add notes to photos as well as capture audio as you write.

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If you’re already territorial over your preferred pencil or pen, there’s Nebo, a handwritten note-taking app that runs with a number of available implements on a wide range of compatible devices.

Nebo lets you take written and multimedia notes that can be quickly zapped into editable, sharable text; but it can also convert (and calculate) math equations and create interactive diagrams and flowcharts. Especially handy are Nebo’s rich content capabilities, which allow you to add titles, paragraphs, bullet lists, drawings, and colored text as you write, and instantly convert it all into finished text layouts when you’re done.

Each of these comes with a slight curve of adjustment (it’s always going to feel a little strange to write across a virtual gap) as well as some extra costs that disposable Bics never presented. But putting all the ease and efficiency of these innovations aside, there’s a human quality to handwriting that’s well worth preserving and protecting.

As the poet Dana Gioia once wrote, a written manuscript can take us from “the public and impersonal world of mechanical typography into the private, human world of the author – from literature as an institution to literature as friendship.”

In the same way, hanging onto our handwriting feels like a way of hanging onto our humanity – that drive each of us has to make a unique mark on the world. Even when it looks like an inscrutable mess.

Michael Andor Brodeur can be reached at mbrodeur@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MBrodeur.