Drawing conclusions. (evaluation) John J. Anderson.
What is the best method for drawing or drafting with a computer? What are the best peripherals available to help you reach this goal? What capabilities might you expect for your money, and how soon will today's state-of-the-art system become obsolete?
As more talented but "right-brained' types of people become involved with computers, meaning interested non-programmers, these questions are increasingly asked. As technology advances, the answers are fortunately becoming better.
If you have over $10,000 to spend on a graphics system, good for you. There are some very powerful machines out there, beckoning for your investment.
We shall be concerned here with three much less expensive systems for the Apple computer which, nevertheless, span a rather broad price range. Each is a combination of custom hardware and custom software, presented as a complete package. Each has its own advantages and unique peccadilloes. One uses a tablet peripheral, one a light pen, and the third a specially designed precision joystick-style controller.
In deciding which type of system you want to buy, consider the kinds of input you wish to do. Are you drawing cartoons, preparing presentation slides, or drafting serious architectural renderings? Do you wish to output to a color printer or plotter? What are the final forms you wish your drawings to take?
If the video screen is the ultimate destination, do you want to achieve animation? (Take a look at the review of The Graphic Solution in the July 1983 issue of Creative Computing.) If you are designing textiles or need access to dozens of colors, maybe an Atari computer is what you need (along with Paint, reviewed in the March 1983 issue).
The new generation of true graphics tablets is headed by the Chalkboard (see the October 1983 issue). We have also heard that Apple will shortly introduce its own tablet. An inexpensive mouse controller recently became available for the Apple from Wico. It can act as a serviceable graphics input device.
So, why not start expressing your artistic urges or redesigning the kitchen aided by your Apple. You can invest little more than $100, or over $1000. But the invocation is the same.
The concept of the graphics tablet has been with us for some time. To create an image by moving a stylus over a flat surface is a very natural and pleasing means of input. It also offers control with a steady hand.
The device has remained until this time, however, a complicated and expensive technological proposition. Typically, tablets incorporate complex switch mechanisms, bringing the total cost to more than $600. Graphics tablets have also been known to throw off a good deal of RFI (radio frequency interference), which makes both neighbors and the FCC unhappy. The tablets may also have a tendency to go haywire now and again.
As has been the case with nearly every computer and peripheral you can name, the cost of the graphics tablet has, in spite of any shortcomings, continued to drop, while reliability has increased. Recently the KoalaPad touch tablet made its debut, and more or or less revolutionized the technology.
Whether the KoalaPad should truly be called a graphics tablet is hard to say. It certainly looks like one and functions like one. However, the drawing surface is much smaller in scale--the product seems to fit somewhere in between a joystick and an actual graphics tablet.
When you begin to play with a KoalaPad, you appreciate its capabilities in short order. At a suggested retail price of $125 for the Apple model, you may draw your own conclusions. You can draw a whole lot more, too, using the superlative software that accompanies it.
The Apple KoalaPad plugs into the game controller port, just as if it were a joystick. It also has two switches, and in fact can be used in some existing paddle and joystick applications. It draws 5 volts from the host computer.
The real potential of the KoalaPad becomes obvious, however, only when you run specially designed Koalaware software for it. Then it is transformed into an artist's input device rivalling the power of a full-fledged graphics tablet, but at a reasonable price.
The package Micro Illustrator is supplied with the KoalaPad itself. This is one of the most powerful inexpensive drawing utilities I have seen for any microcomputer. It is a menu-and-pointer-based program, which uses the tablet as an input peripheral. You choose a selection by pointing on the pad, with either a finger or a stylus. This moves the on-screen cursor to the desired choice. You then confirm the choice with the press of a button.
This system of nested windows is an especially friendly way to make decisions, and closely follows the format used by Apple Lisa software. A quick indicator of its ease of use is the dramatic evidence provided by non-computer-types when they sit at a machine running Micro Illustrator. With almost no coaching, they begin to lose their inhibitions and start drawing. The combination of hardware and software creates a system with the power to make a first-time user lose track of time.
I love to create images with computers and have used nearly every program designed to do this on a host of machines. I have never seen any package with features to match the Koala system for the price.
Drawings can be saved as hi-res Apple screens and quickly accessed from Applesoft or other graphics programs. While the only available solid colors are the artifact groups red, blue, purple, green, white, and black, other color variations are made possible by plaiding. Unfortunately, the color and plaid menus are fixed and not user-definable.
Automatic modes make drawing straight lines, rectangles, circles, discs, and blocks as easy as pi (even easier than that, non-match folks). Drawing these shapes could not possibly be simpler (see photos).
Ease Of Use
But artistic potential is not the only reason I view the KoalaPad as a "breakthrough.' It is, as an input device, like its cousin the mouse, an intelligent and simple alternative to keyboard commands. The KoalaPad is even more convenient to use than a mouse, because no free desk space is required to operate it. In addition, it uses fewer moving parts--and so is less prone to failure.
If you have still not admitted to the viability of the mouse as a computer peripheral, you may not see the KoalaPad as a breakthrough. Get smart. I have seen what an easy user interface can do for people intimidated by keyboards. They expedite learning, and can make the task of wading through command decisions intuitively obvious--just point to what you want. This potential should not be underestimated.
Unfortunately, it frequently is, especially by seasoned users who fail to see the problem a keyboard may pose for others. More's the pity.
For the handicapped, the advent of products like the KoalaPad may make interaction with computers a much less taxing activity than it is currently. It is my hope that Koalaware and other software houses will take a long, hard look at the utility of pointing peripherals as an interface for physically disabled computer users.
The pad has also been released for Atari, IBM, and Commodore 64 computers.
LPS II Light Pen
I have always had an affinity for the light pen as a peripheral. As opposed to using a joystick, graphics tablet, or mouse, working with a light pen is utterly analogous to working with a normal pen. No guesswork. No training period. The eye and the hand work together at the same point on the screen.
I like light pens so much I once went as far as to design one--Creative Computing published the plans. Everything you needed to build it could be obtained from the neighborhood Radio Shack. It fit into a penlight. It had a touch ring. It was neat. The only problem was it didn't work quite as well as it might have.
The Gibson Light Pen, in contrast, works extremely well. It is, in fact, one of the most impressive peripherals available for your Apple computer. Its capabilities are nearly unlimited.
In terms of the immediacy of freehand drawing, nothing comes close to the Gibson package. You really feel as if you are drawing. And in fact, you are, in a 1:1 ratio of pen movement to screen plot. This means you can draw with nearly all the freedom of freehand, and have the result look very much as if you had drawn it on paper.
The Gibson pen is attached to a board that fits in slot 7 of your Apple computer. The pen wire sticks out from under the top cover of the machine. Boot the pen software, and you're off.
The software is not nearly as polished as that of the KoalaPad, but it can accomplish many of the same tasks, and more. It is not nearly as much of a pleasure to use, but it includes some very interesting features. Mirroring allows you to create symmetrical shapes across the X, Y, or both axes. An animation utility is offered for constructing multiple shapes. Means of accessing the light pen from Applesoft is also provided.
The Penpainter program allows fill plaids to be defined by the user--a very pleasing feature. In addition, any fill can be used over any other fill. This is a rarity in graphics programs. Usually because of the way the program is designed, one fill pattern cannot pre-empt another containing duplicate colors.
I should say more about the software currently accompanying the pen, but a new, absolutely mind-blowing package is now being developed. From the demonstration Gary Wells recently gave me, this new software appears to rival the Lisa in its monochrome nested window approach. Suffice to say my mouth was hanging open. The package will be made available at a nominal charge to all current owners of the pen, and will be included with the pens themselves in future releases.
The last time I saw Steve himself, he was providing a colorful demo of his new pen for Atari computers. That model sported a tip switch, and it shouldn't surprise me if we shortly saw a tip switch on the Apple version of the pen as well.
There are only two criticisms I might possibly raise of a quality light pen, such as the LPS II. As pointed out to me by Dick Kushner, the user's arm tires after holding it to a CRT for awhile. Holding the pen out horizontally is definitely a greater strain than working with gravity on a graphics tablet, mouse, or track ball. The light pen is probably not an ideal peripheral for use by the handicapped. If the user can rest an elbow on the desk or table in front of a display, however, this effect is minimized.
Also, for a light pen to work properly, it must detect a strong light source from its screen. This means that drawing cannot take place on a black screen. With the LPS system you can work on a white background, then reverse color with the push of a button (this trades artifact colors in the process, turning red to blue, green to violet, and vice versa--somewhat annoying). Or you can choose a mode wherein a small patch of white follows the pen around an otherwise dark screen. An ingenious solution.
The LPS II is a great buy at $250. I didn't like the way its spy-proof epoxy case pressed on my controller card when snuggled into slot 7, but you can't have everything.
The CAD-1 system from Robographics marks a radical departure from the graphics systems discussed so far. While most of the kinds of drawing possible with the KoalaPad or LPS II systems are also possible with the CAD-1 system, the CAD-1 can do much more. It provides technical drafting capabilities rivaling computerassisted design systems costing tens of thousands of dollars.
The most significant aspect of the Robographics system is its final output: rather than a hi-res Apple screen, it can save graphics data that can then be sent to a drafting plotter.
The standard peripheral used for input with the CAD-1 is a precision joystick module. It includes a high quality joystick, a disc-type potentiometer, and three pushbuttons (see photo). It plugs into the existing game I/O socket on the Apple II or Apple IIe, which must be equipped with a minimum of 64K and two disk drives. The controller is solid, heavy, and has a feel that sets it leagues apart from any other Apple joystick one may be tempted to compare it with.
I must admit that I am not as enamored of the joystick approach as I am of the graphics tablet or light pen approach. Although the CAD-1 stick is a precision instrument, it is not as easy to handle in the freehand mode, nor is there any feeling remotely resembling the act of drawing. Fortunately, the system can also handle input from other peripherals.
Then there is the software side of CAD-1. The system master disk loads the main graphics program into the computer. The screen comes up with a menu display, outlining textual and graphic menu selections (Figure 1.) Text runs down the righthand side and graphics across the bottom of the screen. This arrangement makes choosing the commands you want about as straightforward as possible. Use the joystick to move the on-screen cursor until it highlights your selection: press the lefthand button to confirm the selection.
If you choose the selection "menu,' a second menu of choices appears down the righthand side of the screen. This sequence of nested menus makes operation of the CAD-1 system very simple.
If and when you want to get rid of the menu, to use the entire available screen area for your drawing, use the command "full.' This removes the "palette' from the screen area.
And so you may begin drawing. You may select the shape of your line, its color, and its type (continuous or one of three sorts of dotted). One of the more interesting and convenitne features of CAD-1 is its ability to move backward or forward through every step of a drawing sequence. If you make a mistake, just back up the number of steps it takes to get you out of it. If you move back too far, move forward to the desired step. As opposed to a single body of updated screen data, CAD-1 remembers and can recreate all the steps in a drawing.
This is the departure that makes it possible to drive a plotter. It also allows a plotter to eradicate the problem known as aliasing, wherein diagonal or curved lines become jagged-looking. The kind of data saved as CAD-1 drawings will map straight diagnoals and curving arcs--opening up possibilities not available with screen-based systems.
The other feature lending remarkable power to CAD-1 is its Library capability. The Library disk contains a graphic index of miniature drawings, any of which can be obtained, scaled, and modified for use with original drawings. If you are an architect, for example, you may store commonly used architectural symbols (standard or of your own design) and retrieve them for use as necessary. Aside from the ability to scale the size of the unit, it can be rotated in steps of five degrees and "stretched' or "squeezed.' Library entries themselves can be composites of other library entries--or original work.
The CAD-1 system, of course, includes the capability of generating circles. But it does not stop there. By using the "squeeze' command, a circle can be turned into an ellipse. In addition, tangent arcs can be drawn between selected points, with selected radii. This is an extremely handy feature.
A Paint selection is offered to allow quick fill-in of outlined shapes, but affects only the monitor display--not a plotter output. However, a feature called Nib allows filling in areas either solidly or with hatching effects, to appear eventually on the plotted page.
The command Text allows text blocks to be added easily to an existing drawing. During entry it can be rotated in steps of 90 degrees. By transferring it to the Library, however, it can be scaled and rotated with greater flexibility.
Of course the screen size and resolution of the Apple II would seem to present a limitation to the CAD-1 system. This is not the case. The magnifying capability called Zoom allows detail to be added to a specific area of a larger drawing. You may then return to the original base page scale, while the detail added in the Zoom mode remains.
You may Zoom as often as you like to any desired level of magnification (within eventual constraints of memory). You may then invoke the command Pan to view off-screen areas of the drawing at that same level of magnification. So it becomes clear that the size of a base page need not be limited by the size of the screen display. You can access all the detail you need--even to create highly complex plans.
In addition to using Zoom to draw added detail, disk library units can be nested within each other at different magnifications. This feature may impart to you the tremendous potential of the CAD-1. Object drawings stored in the CAD-1 system can ecompass an incredible level of detail, visible as you Zoom through a range of scales.
In addition, CAD-1 can "Flip' library units into mirror images along the X or Y axis. Colors can be altered; drawings can be moved, duplicated, even animated using commands from the CAD-1 menu. And, using the auto edit feature, a library unit can be updated so that all subsequent appearances of that unit will also be updated. In this manner a single design change need not necessitate the redrafting of an entire project. Simply redefine an original component on the same library disk as an assembly component that references it. All references will automatically be updated.
If you wish to save data as hi-res Apple screens rather than as plottable graphics indices, CAD-1 allows this also.
Some handy drafting aids have been included with the system. I am not a draftsman, but a hobbyist. Still, i can see clearly that CAD-1 has the ability to create drawings to meet a very high technical standard. According to the comprehensive and well-written documentation accompanying the package, "you have at your disposal a range of precision aids which can be used with the same effect as traditional graph paper, scales, protractors, and other drawing instruments . . . End points will be accurately defined, lines will meet where they are supposed to, curves will blend smoothly, parallel lines will be just that, and text will be consistent in size and position.' I have no argument with these claims.
There is, for example, a feature to lock cursor movement. You can limit the cursor to select a locked range of angles or grid points. You may use these locks in combination, as well, to set a skewed grid. Grids can be scaled, giving the same effect as different scales of graph paper.
The Scale function further allows a locked grid to be set at specific metric dimensions, wherein the base page size can be set to any value between 1 mm and 1000 km. You may set the base page value to the actual size of the object you wish to draw; the computer will then display the nearest larger base page that offers convenient grid spacing. When Zoom is invoked, the program automatically rescales the screen grid to the desired magnification, maintaining true scale.
The CAD-1 system is costly, currently listing for $1095. For this price, however, it represents the most advanced drafting system available for any microcomputer under $3000. It quite probably offers more features than the typical reader of Creative Computing seeks. But, if it is professional drafting capability you are looking for, you will not find a better package.
The ability to send output to a plotter is critical--and CAD-1 allows the user to get a plotter working at full potential. The nested levels of detail possible with the system points in the direction of things to come.
Photo: KoalaPad controller.
Photo: The pictures on this page were all designed with the KoalaPad.
Photo: LPS II light pen and controller card.
Photo: Designed with the LPS II.
Photo: LPS II fill patterns make Harry a natty dresser.
Photo: X and Y axis symmetry with the LPS II.
Photo: Sample plot from Robographics CAD-1 system.
Photo: Robographics CAD-1 controller.
Photo: The CAD-1 system features serious drafting capability.
Products: Koala Pad Touch tablet (computer apparatus)
Gibson LPS II Light Pen (computer apparatus)
Chessell-Robocom Robographics CAD-1 (computer apparatus)