Introduction: Customizing the Look and Feel of Your Pen Tablet

For a few of years now, I've been using a pen tablet as a mouse replacement at work. It works quite nicely, in the sense that I can work behind the computer all day long without feeling any strain. The only thing bothering me was that the pen, as well as the tablet, start to feel clammy after a while. So I thought: "I don't recall drawing on paper ever felt clammy.. What if I could make my pen tablet feel more like paper?".

Turns out this is pretty easy to pull off, since you can just put a piece of paper on the tablet and it'll still work. (The reason why is because most tablets work with electromagnetic induction. As paper isn't magnetic, it won't interfere.) Of course, dragging the pen across paper instead of plastic will feel a bit rougher. This may or may not not be what you're looking for if your main use of the tablet is drawing/painting. However, if you're mainly using the tablet as a mouse replacement, it hardly makes any difference: You're usually just floating the pen above the tablet to move the pointer, and tapping the tablet to click, but you don't need to click-and-drag that often.

Anyway, enough introduction already, time to improve this tablet's look and feel! It's ridiculously simple and it only takes a few minutes.

Step 1: Tools and Materials

Materials used:

- A pen tablet of course; any tablet'll do (the one I'm using here is a Wacom Bamboo)
- One or two sheets of paper; just make sure they're a bit larger than the size of your tablet
- Masking tape (or any other tape made of paper)
- Tape (that sticks to paper, as well as plastic)

Tools used:

- Scissors
- A computer and a printer
- If needed, a utility knife, some measuring tools and a pencil

Step 2: Improving the Pen's Grip

If your tablet's pen doesn't have a rubber grip, like mine, you can improve its grip/feel by wrapping some masking tape around it (or any other tape made of paper, or whatever other material you like). Just make sure you don't cover any of the pen's buttons.

Step 3: Customizing the Tablet

Now for the fun part, customizing the tablet itself:

Just wrapping your tablet with a blank sheet of paper is boring. So why not print something nice on it? First, go browse the net for a picture that you like. Desktop wallpapers will actually fit quite nicely. (I chose this wallpaper from Simple Desktops; looks appropriate enough for a Wacom Bamboo :) ) You can pick whatever you like of course, but I'd go for something simple/subtle, such that it doesn't distract too much.

Once you've chosen your picture, print it. A regular A4-sized sheet of paper happened to be the perfect size in my case (My tablet's drawing surface is A6-sized, so it's a pretty small tablet.) You will probably need to print on a larger sheet of paper if you have a larger tablet. (You could try taping multiple A4 / US Letter-sized sheets together, but my guess is it won't take long before you'll make some small tears while moving the pen over the sheets' edges..) As an alternative, you could also experiment with a roll of gift/book-wrapping paper instead.

Optionally, you can use an adhesive film to strengthen the paper, but then your tablet will feel like plastic again of course, so I haven't done this. (Besides, if I manage to damage the paper somehow, it doesn't take much time/effort to make a new one..)

( Update - After using my modified pen tablet for about a month or so, you can tell the paper is getting a bit dirty around the place where you usually rest the wrist of your hand. So on second thought, it's actually probably best to add some adhesive film to avoid this problem. )

If your tablet has buttons, scroll wheels or other doodads, you may need to make some cuts in the paper so you can have access to them. Just make some markings on the back of the paper with a pencil and some measuring tools, then cut them out with a utility knife or some scissors. After cutting, you'll probably want to add some tape around these cuts, on the back of the paper, to add strength to the corners. If your tablet only has buttons like mine, you can also just skip this step; I can still use the buttons just fine without any cuts. Alternatively, you can of course also choose to only wrap part of the tablet such that the area with all the controls is left uncovered.

Finally, just tape the paper to the tablet. Note that I used two sheets of paper on top of each other, such that the corners would be a little sturdier. Also, you may need to make a few small cuts to make room for the tablet's rubber feet (as shown in the picture above).

.. and that's all there is to it; enjoy your new customized pen tablet!

Comments

author
Deconstructed made it!(author)2012-12-28

Thanks for the info, timmolderez! It's funny you mentioned that because I am studying something related to resonance right now. Fascinating stuff. You should check out a company called WiTricity. There is a TED video about it on their site that is very good, too.

Another cool thing about vellum is that some types are semi transparent, so you could possibly put color on the inside and it might show through to the outside but not get damaged when drawing.

Another idea might be some kind of shrink plastic... but it's just a guess. Not sure if it's feasible. Have you ever heard of Shrinky Dinks? Only problem is they had to be put in the oven. If you could do the same thing but with lower temp it would be ideal. You could color those, too. That surface might be clammy too, though.

author
timmolderez made it!(author)2012-12-29

Just watched their TED video; that is pretty awesome :) I'm guessing it works in a quite similar fashion to pen tablets, but cranked up to eleven: Trying to jam as much coil as you can in as little space as possible to be able to transfer more power across a greater distance.

About semi-transparent vellum: I'm thinking of doing something similar, but with a sheet of plexiglass/acrylic. Or maybe regular glass.. whatever I can find that is transparent, durable, smooth and is easy enough to cut. I'd first make some sort of wooden picture frame that would go around the pen tablet. You can put whatever picture you like in the picture frame and then put the sheet of plexiglass on top of it. Put all of that on the pen tablet and you get.. a framed picture with a cable sticking out of it .. which also happens to be a fully-functional stealthy-looking pen tablet :) You'd probably want to cut some holes in the frame (or in the plexiglass) too such that you can still reach the tablet's buttons.

About Shrinky Dinks: Haven't heard of them, but I think I get the picture looking at an old-timey 80s commercial on YouTube :) You probably don't want to wrap the entire tablet in a big sheet of Shrinky Dink, since putting the tablet in an oven sounds like a very bad idea.. Instead of using it as a wrapper, I'm sure you could make a nice-looking surface out of it though that you simply put on top of the tablet, just like the sheet of plexiglass.

author
Deconstructed made it!(author)2012-12-28

There is this drawing paper architects and draftsmen use it's called vellum. I am wondering how this might work as a surface? It's very smooth and as I remembered it was very durable.

One other thing to consider though is that the pad may detect the pen through the surface but it could effect the accuracy. I don't know how that could be tested though because it probably requires really precision technology to determine that.

Fun idea though.. something to think about.

author
timmolderez made it!(author)2012-12-28

Looking at vellum's Wikipedia entry, I'm pretty sure that it would work just fine as a surface.

As for accuracy, I've been looking a little further into how a pen tablet actually works and ended up on this page: http://www.wacom-components.com/english/technology/emr.html , which gives an overview of the EMR (eletro-magnetic resonance) tech that's used in most pen tablets.

What it boils down to is that you can cover your pen tablet with just about any material without affecting accuracy, as long as it doesn't interfere with the tablet's magnetic field. If there is no interference, the pen and the tablet can communicate just fine, which is what matters most. The surface just needs to be hard and smooth such that you can properly use the pen's pressure sensor. Also, just to try it out, I tossed a mouse pad and 20 sheets of paper on top of my tablet; I then did some doodling in Paint Shop Pro and I really can't tell any difference in accuracy. So yeah.. vellum shouldn't be a problem :)

Also, if you're interested, here's what I gathered from that page about EMR:
Inside the tablet, there's a grid of coils that is continuously being turned on and off rapidly. When this grid of coils is powered on, this will emit a magnetic field around the tablet.
Now, inside the tip of the pen, there's a similar coil. If you hover this coil inside the tablet's magnetic field, this will generate a little bit of energy that's enough to power the pen's circuitry for a short while. The pen now uses this power to detect the amount of pressure in the tip's pressure sensor, as well as which buttons are pressed on the pen. This information is then encoded into an analog signal using a modulator. That signal is then sent to the very same coil that was first used to receive the pen's power.
When that signal is sent, the grid inside the tablet should already be turned off by then. Because it's off, this grid of coils now acts as a receiver. That is, when the pen sends its signal back, only the coils in the grid that are closest to the pen will receive the signal. The tablet can now determine the X and Y position of the pen by measuring where the signal is strongest in the grid. That signal is then sent through a demodulator in the tablet to get the information of how pressure there was on the pen's tip, as well as which buttons were pressed.
That information is then sent off to the computer and the whole cycle can start all over again: The tablet gives power to the pen; the pen uses that power to send its information back to the tablet, who receives the pen's information and can determine its location. While it takes a lot of words to explain all this, it probably only takes a millisecond or so to go through an entire cycle.

author
Deconstructed made it!(author)2012-12-26

This is a cool idea I just wish there was some more durable material to use to cover it. What about some really think type of leather or something? Or maybe some leather-like material.

author
timmolderez made it!(author)2012-12-26

Actually, your comment made me wonder how thick the material can be, such that the tablet can still properly pick up mouse clicks. It turns out that the pen works totally fine at any distance, as long as the tip is close enough to receive power from the tablet. Once the pen gets power (i.e. it is close enough for the computer to pick up the pen's movement), you can push the pen's tip against just about anything and it will detect a click.

So, to answer your question: Sure, you can use leather or just about any other material to cover the tablet and it will still work fine. Well, leather may not be the best choice though.. you really want to have a hard and smooth surface (e.g. glass). The reason is, if you want to do a click-and-drag gesture, your pen will also need to drag across the surface, so leather won't work so well there. Likewise if you're making use of the pen's pressure sensitivity,

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