As a drawing or painting tool, the computer mouse is only slightly less effective than a potato. This is particularly a problem for artists who want to use the power of the personal computer to create new forms of electronic art, but it also makes life difficult for people who want to draw maps, make sketches or simply doodle with a computer painting program.
The Wacom Technology Corp. recently introduced a new graphics tablet for Apple Macintosh computers that uses a cordless "ultra" pen, instead of a mouse, to enable artists to draw, paint and trace images more naturally.
Pen-based graphics tablets have been around for many years, but Wacom's new model, the ArtZ II, is particularly noteworthy because the electronic pen has an electronic eraser.
Those of us who never make mistakes will probably not find much use for an electronic eraser. But for those other people -- you probably know one or two of them -- an electronic eraser is a godsend.
For one thing, it completely eliminates the need to smear that messy White-Out liquid all over the computer screen, and there are no little flecks of rubber eraser detritus to fall into the cracks of the keyboard. Wait, that was a joke, not a mistake.
The eraser works with specific graphics programs designed to recognize the eraser. The list is fairly short now, including new versions of Adobe Photoshop and Fractal Design Painter, but it is certain to grow.
The eraser is pressure-sensitive. The harder one scrubs on the tablet, the more thorough the erasing effect. The other end of the pen is also pressure-sensitive, so that the heavier the pressure, the thicker the line. In other words, it works just as a pencil or paintbrush does.
The pen that comes as standard equipment with the tablet is ideal for touching up Photoshop images or tracing line drawings into a painting program. (Drawing programs typically involve lines, shapes and forms, while painting programs typically make more use of color, shading and special painterly effects.)
Lines drawn with the basic pen show up on the screen but not the tablet. For people who are more comfortable working on paper, Wacom makes optional electronic pens and pencils that write simultaneously with real ink or lead and with electrons. They cost $125 each.
One does not have to be an artist to appreciate graphics tablets and pens. The Wacom tablet-pen is actually a superior (but expensive) replacement for a mouse. It is much more accurate for moving the cursor around the screen.
And -- this is a purely subjective, nonscientific observation, with no implied medical claims, and your mileage may vary -- it does not cause me the wrist and arm strain that usually accompanies long sessions with the computer mouse. I would take ordinary writer's cramp over carpal tunnel syndrome any day.
The most intriguing aspect is that Wacom's pen with the electronic eraser works not just with painting and drawing programs, but also with word processors, spreadsheets and other general applications.
Whoa, you might say, the columnist has clearly made a mistake. One does not write word processing or spreadsheet documents by hand, so how, then, can an electronic eraser on an electronic pen be of help?
The answer is that the pen can replace the mouse for moving the cursor around on the screen and becomes every bit as effective as a mouse for initiating the commands needed to delete words, paragraphs, spreadsheet cells and other items.
It is, in fact, more efficient. Deleting a paragraph in this column is as simple as tapping three times with the pen's eraser.
Oops. There went a paragraph. The pen made a mistake.
The Wacom ArtZ II tablet comes in several sizes and prices. The 6x8 model I tested has a suggested price of $389. (The designation is the actual writing area, in inches; the pad is 12 inches wide and about 9 inches deep.) Larger models cost $540 and more, up to $2,500 for an 18x25 version. The smallest model costs $180.
More information is available from the Wacom Technologies Corp. of Vancouver, Wash., by calling (206) 750-8882, or by sending E-mail to wacom(AT)aol.com.
A remarkable new Macintosh program from the Fractal Design Corp., Poser 1.0, is an electronic alternative to the little wooden mannequins used by artists as aids to drawing the human figure.
Poser is simple to use. One chooses a model, male or female, and it is displayed on the computer screen in a three-dimensional representation. The figure can be seen as a stick figure, as a so-called wire frame model or as a fully rendered image showing muscles or flesh.
By using a mouse, or a Wacom pen, one can manipulate the arms, legs, torso and other body segments to pose the figure in any way imaginable. The perspective can be changed as well, allowing the artist to view the model from any angle.
It is hard to get a human model to freeze in midstep, stand on one hand or hold an awkward position for hours on end. The Poser models are endlessly patient and flexible.
Once the electronic mannequin is posed, it can be inserted into other graphics programs or computer-aided design programs, such as Fractal's excellent Painter program, or simply used as a reference model.
Poser 1.0 has a suggested price of $199, but it is available at an introductory price of $99 until the end of August. More information is available from Fractal Design by calling (800) 297-2665, by visiting the World Wide Web site at http://www.fractal.com, or by sending E-mail to technical support(AT)fractal.com.