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PhatWare’s CalliGrapher 8.0

Reviewed October 2005 by Tanker Bob

Input to handheld devices has been an area open to improvement and innovation since the beginning.  We’ve seen all manner of portable keyboards, indigenous thumb boards, soft keyboards of all descriptions.  But from Graffiti on, the Holy Grail has been true handwriting recognition.  Many attempts have been made, but all have fallen short.  PhatWare has now laid claim to success in this lofty endeavor with CalliGrapher 8.0.  MobileTechReview just had to put that claim to the test.

I evaluated CalliGrapher on a Dell Axim X50v running Windows Mobile 2003SE with a 624MHz CPU and VGA screen.  CalliGrapher was installed into Built-in Storage.  The Axim had a Boxwave ClearTouch Crystal screen protector installed, which furnished a very smooth writing surface.

The Contender

PhatWare equipped this version with advanced fuzzy logic and neural net-based algorithms in its recognition engine.  It recognizes cursive, printing, and mixed writing, all including numbers mixed with letters and symbols.  Rather than the user learning a new writing system, CalliGrapher learns the user’s writing style.  To this end, it creates and keeps a statistical database to characterize the user’s writing style.  That’s pretty heady stuff, especially since for a device that fits in your hand or your pocket.

 

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Of course, CalliGrapher starts from an assumed base of letter forms--lots of them.  I’ve used ‘k’ as an example in the screen shot.  While many of the forms look the same, they are constructed with different stylus strokes.  The strokes themselves are as important as the shapes.  It would greatly aid new and experienced users to review the basic styles, which are pretty comprehensive.  Of course, CalliGrapher will learn your styles as time goes on, but it assumes one of the plethora offered as a starting point.  Word shapes may be lowered in priority or disabled if some interfere with the recognition of user inputs, but PhatWare recommends against disabling too many as that will hurt the recognition accuracy.  I found that downgrading forms never used can help weed out misunderstandings, and therefore consider it worth the effort to review and cull the entire list.

A robust spell checker with about 100,000 words augments these algorithms.  CalliGrapher can highlight misspelled words to make them easier to spot.  The dictionary augments and enhances all correction modes and Write Pad’s general input mode.

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CalliGrapher now has two input techniques available.  Existing users will be familiar with the Write Anywhere mode which allows you to write across the entire screen.  This provides the fastest input of the two offered, simply because you can write more at one time.  You can set the delay between when writing stops and recognition finishes to suit your writing style and speed.

The toolbar across the bottom may be user configured.  I set up the illustrated bar with common editing tasks.  The possibilities for populating the bar are numerous and will be discussed later.

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Added to version 8 is the new Write Pad that occupies the traditional SIP area.  CalliGrapher does most of its learning here.  Even if you intend to normally use the Write Anywhere system, you should train the system using the Write Pad for a couple of weeks at the start.

The Write Pad toolbar provides handy access to key functions.  You can set the input mode (more on that later) with the first five buttons, bring up the soft keyboard, access the program settings or select saved configurations, view/change letter forms, space, return, backspace, and clear the Write Pad.

The small gray triangle under the bottom line to the left can speed your text entry. Anything written to the left of that point sends the text in previously written in the SIP to the document in which you are writing. This way you don’t have to tap the Enter key after each SIP full of text.  However, using this feature works best if CalliGrapher is set to add a space at the end of each input stream.  Otherwise, you’ll have to manually enter one after each input.  The triangle may be moved by setting the Word Pad in individual character move, tapping and holding on the triangle, then dragging it to the desired location when the vertical bar appears.

Settings

Write Anywhere settings differ slightly from Write Pad’s. Here you can set margins around the screen to avoid conflicts with the scroll bars. This only limits the first stroke, after which you may write into the margin. Button functions may also be customized here, and you may use anti-aliasing to smooth the ink on the screen. The ink color and width may be set to suit the user.  Either Write Pad or Write Anywhere may be set as the default SIP.

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Part of the beauty of Write Anywhere is that it leaves the most amount of screen available for viewing your document, with only the toolbar optionally left on the screen.  The configuration screen shown above displays the host of tools available for the toolbar.  These include cursor movements, basic editing functions, PenCommand tools, and program-specific functions.  The latter include setting the input mode, word correction, settings, help, etc.  More functions may be added to the toolbar in landscape mode.

 

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Write Pad configuration screens allow you to set up the dictionary, auto corrector, and statistical analyzer. The user may specify the dictionary to use as well as its location, and even specify a custom user dictionary.  All these features may be disabled, though I can’t think of a good reason for doing so.

Universal settings across modes include the ability to automatically add a space after each word string.  On the upside, this speeds the entry of long text strings like writing a document.  The downside comes when writing file names or passwords where the space at the end invalidates the entry.  The way around this is to set up an alternate configuration that doesn’t add the space, which enables you to swap setups with just an icon tap.

Correction and Learning

CalliGrapher primarily uses the Write Pad for learning, but it does collect some data from Write Anywhere.  It keeps statistical data in a file, building it over the first two to three weeks of normal use.  PhatWare recommends not using the correction engine until completing a one to two week training period, but I didn’t encounter any problems using it from the start.  PhatWare says that the statistical file won’t grow larger than 50K.  By the end of the testing, mine was about 25K.  Using the statistical analyzer requires that the dictionary be activated as well, but it works independent of the language used.

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Write Pad shows you CalliGrapher’s interpretation of your writing in the icon bar area as you write.  If CalliGrapher doesn’t recognize a word correctly in Write Pad, you can simply tap on the word in the icon bar.  CalliGrapher pops up a list of possible matches from which you may select the right word.  PhatWare recommends that you write out whatever will fit in the Word Pad window before going back to correct individual words.  This proved to be good advice.  Many times if a word isn’t immediately recognized, it will be after several more words are written to provide context.  This proved a two-edged sword, though.  Sometimes a word will be recognized correctly at first, but change to the wrong word later in the writing stream.  This seemed mostly to be due to the user adding punctuation, but not always.  It didn’t happen all the time, but often enough to be annoying, especially when the correct word that you chose earlier doesn’t appear in the subsequent list of correction choices.

CalliGrapher offers several other shortcuts to fixing an improperly recognized word or character.  Tapping the backspace icon will remove the last gestures successively, eventually clearing the input area if you tap back through all strokes.  Another helpful technique is to draw a line through the incorrect strokes and hold the stylus down at the end of this line.  Everything touched by your line will be erased.  I found this particularly handy, especially for printed characters.  Corrections may be made anywhere in the writing stream.  If all else fails, tap the Clr key and the entire input area will be erased.

CalliGrapher doesn’t require you to cross your ‘t’s and dot your ‘i’s, but it may be prudent to do so at times.  If you’re like me, many times script ‘e’ characters look like ‘i’ because the loop is non-existent.  After a while, CalliGrapher will pick up on this and even your worse ‘e’ will be taken as an ‘e’ (Yep, the training really does work).  However, at that point, sometimes a real ‘i’ will be taken as an ‘e’.  In such cases, simply dot the eye and CalliGrapher will get the hint.  The same works for ‘t’ and ‘l’ if you cross the ‘t’ as necessary.  Sweet.

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Write Anywhere works somewhat differently.  The user doesn’t know what will or will not be recognized until the entire written text appears in the document.  At this point, you can select the incorrect word or phrase and either perform the “Quick Correct” gesture or tap on the Quick Correct icon (checkmark) on the toolbar.  Either of these will take you to a separate Quick Correct screen.  When that screen pops up, the first character of the word will be highlighted and the same pop-up word list as used in Word Pad will appear.  If the correct word doesn’t display, you may change individual characters.  This system proved quite usable, but it took much more time to fix errors here than Word Pad.  Of course, you could always work directly in the document as with any other input method, but you wouldn’t have the benefit of the dictionary and CalliGrapher wouldn’t learn from the mistakes.

One nifty side benefit of this correction scheme involves the spell checking capability.  If you select an entire document or Correct All and go to the correction screen, CalliGrapher will spell check the entire document.  That could come in very handy, especially in long memos or in Pocket Word documents.

Gestures and Other Features

No, we’re not talking about gestures useful in some traffic situations.  CalliGrapher recognizes a number of strokes as special commands.  These include things like space, backspace, return, tab, quick correct, cut, copy, paste, undo, erase and clear.  My most used gestures included change case.  This gesture changes the case of the character directly after the cursor or the highlighted text.  While CalliGrapher generally did a good job with capitalization, acronyms sometimes confused its capitalization recognition.  Then again, sometimes I just messed up the caps. smile

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CalliGrapher includes a soft QWERTY keyboard that comes in handy for a wide range of characters.  Tapping on the shift, Alt, or Ctrl keys holds that key down until the next key is entered—a very handy feature.  The key next to the Alt key displays a large number of international characters on the keyboard, and of course the cursor movement keys appear on the lower right side.

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A much quicker and more convenient way to enter symbols and special characters uses the custom keyboard.  The one illustrated is the default version.  You can see all common symbols represented there.  If that doesn’t suit you, just customize it with the symbols or characters that you frequently need.  The custom keyboard floats so that you may place it where convenient, or you may pin it as required.  You get this gem by tapping the custom keyboard key on the QWERTY keyboard or by using the quick correct gesture with nothing highlighted.  The gem comes in especially handy in Write Anywhere mode where adding lone punctuation proved challenging.

RiteCalc provides another nifty capability.  Simply write a formula that doesn’t include nested terms in brackets, finish it with an ‘=’ sign, and CalliGrapher will provide the result and put it into your document.  Remember that CalliGrapher recognizes numbers and letters in mixed mode, so the user need do nothing special to access RiteCalc at any time.

CalliGrapher’s documentation and website offer very nice tutorials to help new users get started.  Even experienced users will benefit by learning the new Word Pad as well as Write Anywhere changes.  Being a new user myself, I learned a great deal in the very informative tutorials.  The 121-page manual packs much gold in addition to the tutorials and definitely deserves a careful reading.

Input Modes

CalliGrapher offers five separate input modes that enhance recognition when used appropriately.  These can be seen on the left side of the Write Pad icon bar.  First and most commonly used is the mixed mode input that recognizes printing, script writing, numbers, punctuation, and some symbols.  The second enters all caps.  The third enters only numbers and symbols.  The fourth selects Internet address mode which doesn’t use spaces.  The last selects separate character mode, which can be combined with the other modes and tells CalliGrapher that you never connect characters together (i.e., printing only).  This last mode enhances recognition if the user only prints in all other modes.

Changing modes in Write Pad simply involves tapping on the appropriate icon buttons, which acts like a switch.  In Write Anywhere, just tap the recognition mode icon (the ‘a’) and a pop-up menu appears with the modes.  Tap on the desired mode and you’re ready to go.

PenCommand

PenCommand furnishes CalliGrapher with a powerful macro capability.  These commands may enter text strings like signatures and special characters in your documents; they can open files, open a system or other program, et al.  The macro language resembles C and similar languages.  The PenCommand editor can be accessed either from an icon in the SIPs or as a separate program under Start\ Programs\ CalliGrapher.

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The command language allows very sophisticated executions.  It includes variables and can start programs and pass them arguments, control the Calligraphy interface, rotate the screen, perform error handling, display messages, take input, and manipulate variables.  You can even create libraries and access procedures from inside them.  PenCommand furnishes very complex capabilities that go well beyond simple text macros.

Programmed pen commands may be accessed in several ways.  Icons on the Write Anywhere toolbar may be programmed with commands.  Writing a command name in Write Anywhere and then circling it will execute the command.  In Write Pad, if an entry in the text area matches a PenCommand, that command appears in the recognition area.  Simply tap inside the box where the command name appears to execute the command.  Commands may also be assigned to hardware buttons.

Input Speed

Keypad input systems tend to rate themselves in terms of text-input speed.  I believe that such a comparison with natural handwriting can’t be done well with the current standard tools.  These usually require a deliberate space in between words as a way to move through the test.  Natural handwriting doesn’t work that way in real life, so in some way would be artificially burdened in such tests by the brief delay indicating that the writer has ceased input and recognition may begin.  A more realistic test would be a note-taking exercise with a significant amount of text where the tester doesn’t know the content in advance.

I used Calligraphy full time for the duration of the learning period and final evaluation.  While I had difficulty keeping up in note taking at the beginning because of my G’ould script (Warning: Stargate fan!), this improved dramatically by the end of the test.  While I cannot quote numbers in words-per-minute, I can say that note taking with CalliGrapher became possible as it learned my writing.  And after all, that’s the bottom line to the speed issue.

Actual Results

Tanker Bob torture tested CalliGrapher.  Most of the time I can’t read my own writing, and that’s no joke.  As a result, I type almost everything.  If I do hand-write notes, I must review them that same day to clean them up, otherwise parts will be useless for later reference.  So, CalliGrapher had its hands full for this evaluation.  Don’t take the screen shots as indicative of my writing, as I had to work very hard at neatness to even give CalliGrapher a chance at the beginning.

All assessments below reflect post-training results.  I gave CalliGrapher a full three weeks of full-time use before drawing any conclusions.  I found the training frustrating at times, but the efforts paid off handsomely in the end.  Although CalliGrapher works well even without learning, the benefits and effectiveness of its statistical enhancement of the recognition engine proved dramatic in my case.

Since CalliGrapher inputs words and phrases to a program rather than individual letters like a keypad, programs that use progressive filtering, like address lookups, don’t.  There isn’t a way around this without entering letters individually, which would be slower than actually using a keyboard.  That’s one price of natural handwriting recognition.

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Although Write Anywhere has a long history in CalliGrapher’s earlier versions, its results were slightly less impressive than the new Write Pad.  This mode provided almost full screen visibility to the document since it doesn’t need the SIP.  The downside centers on the time it takes to make corrections.  You only find out what CalliGrapher recognized after it inserts the text into the document.

When CalliGrapher misses, it sometimes misses in a way that mere spell checking won’t fix quickly.  That makes correction slow at times.  Since Write Anywhere uses the separate Quick Correct screen, if the spell checker doesn’t find the write word, you have to go to correcting individual letters which really drags out the process.

Write Anywhere proved relatively insensitive to writing at an angle on the screen, as illustrated in the screen shot.  Most other programs required you to write straight across the screen.  CalliGrapher didn’t seem to care.  That comes in very handy in writing in odd places where precision angling would be difficult.

In Write Anywhere mode, highlighting items can be challenging at first.  CalliGrapher requires that the stylus be held down for a brief time before or after drawing a line through the text to be highlighted.  Simply tapping in trying to place the cursor or start to drag for highlighting can produce unintended text input.  This comes as an unavoidable fallout of full-screen writing and can be overcome with practice, but I found it frustrating at first.

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CalliGrapher’s script recognition proved particularly strong.  It amazed me time after time with its ability to pull correct words from scribble.  In fact, it seemed stronger with my script writing than with my printing.  The downside with script even with Word Pad is that while backspace takes out individual strokes in printed characters, the entire word is one stroke in script.  The same is true with the other correction methods.  So the speed and accuracy of script must be balanced against the time to rewrite it if CalliGrapher doesn’t recognize a string and spell check doesn’t provide the correct word.  Again, this issue would affect all natural handwriting recognition schemes, not just CalliGrapher.

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I tend to naturally write in mixed printing and script.  CalliGrapher had no difficulty with this at all.  Note how poorly the ‘e’ and ‘a’ are formed in the screen shot, and that the ‘t’ looks more like a plus sign and rides higher in the block.  The ‘d’ doesn’t have a real bottom loop.  Yet, CalliGrapher had no problem recognizing this mixed string of chicken scratch correctly.  Even the capitalization is correct.  The screen shot is undoctored.

That’s a great lead-in to the bottom line.  CalliGrapher’s recognition is nothing short of amazing.  That it can recognize my handwriting at all would be amazing enough, but it recognized my scribbling to the 95% level or better.  Even non-word strings like file names had risen to that level after three weeks, though this took longer than sentence text.  Perhaps more amazing, CalliGrapher has the uncanny ability to separate out letters, numbers, and symbols apparently through context.  It accomplishes the challenging task of identifying non-word mixes like Bible verses (e.g., “Rom 5:12”) with no difficulty.  If your handwriting is better than mine, you may reach a point where recognition errors become very rare.  CalliGrapher isn’t perfect, but it’s astonishingly close.

Conclusion

PhatWare’s claim proved more than hype--CalliGrapher 8.0 really has brought natural handwriting recognition to the PDA world.  Its ability to accurately recognize a user’s writing style in mixed writing modes that include letters, numbers, punctuation, and symbols has no peer.  CalliGrapher’s feature set includes a robust macro/script implementation in PenCommand, an extensive spell-check dictionary, and a statistical engine to learn your native writing style in any language.  At $39.95, CalliGrapher 8.0 costs a bit more than other input systems, but it’s really a bargain considering what it delivers in natural handwriting recognition, as well as the breadth and depth of its feature set.  Language packs other than English are available for about $14.95 each, and specialty dictionaries for $19.95.  Many users considered previous CalliGrapher versions a novelty, but this version delivers a powerful tool that will astound you.  Tanker Bob ends this evaluation with a sense of awe and CalliGrapher 8.0 with a permanent home on his Axim.

Pro:
Astounding natural handwriting recognition—no bull!
Statistical learning system that adapts to your writing style
Two input modes
Powerful macro/script capability
~100,000-word spell check dictionary
Soft QWERTY and custom keyboards included
Highly configurable, including toolbars and keyboards
Supports multiple saved configurations
Ability to spell check entire documents
Full VGA support
Works at all screen angles and orientations

Cons:
Error correction in Write Anywhere mode seemed a bit tedious if the correct word didn’t appear in the pop-up list

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