Intel gives the deets on how the Universal Stylus Initiative will make digital ink better

Microsoft Surface Book
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends
You may not realize it, but the modern stylus is a bit of a mess. The main problem is lack of standardization. Think about it. You can use a mouse, or keyboard, or monitor with most systems — whether they run Windows, Linux, or even Android. But a stylus? That’s tied to a single device. You can’t use the stylus from your Samsung Note with your Microsoft Surface, or vice versa.

Intel, and device makers, would like that to change. A consortium was formed last year to promote the Universal Stylus Initiative (USI), a standard everyone could use to enable stylus support. The details of the technology behind it was explained in-depth at this week’s Intel Developer Forum in San Francisco.

The USI standard relies on an active stylus capable of two-way communication with the device it’s paired to. The link between the device and the stylus uses “frequency and time division multiplexing.” Put simply, it lets a stylus communicate in particular patterns, on particular radio frequencies. In doing so, the stylus gains many features.

For example — most stylus implementations don’t support multiple users. Input from a second device won’t be recognized, or won’t be accepted properly, because the computer doesn’t know how to read the input from the second stylus. With USI, though, up to six styluses are supported. Each can work over a particular frequency, and communicate with a paired device at particular times, making it easy to separate input.

USI is also designed to enable a high level of functionality. It supports 4,096 levels of pressure recognition, simultaneous pen and touch (i.e. fingertip) use, 9-axis motion sensors, and on-stylus buttons. While the standard itself defines how a stylus communicates, there’s room for others to define what is communicated. So, if a company wants to program particular gestures, or unique new buttons, they can do it within the USI framework.

Why does this matter? According to Intel engineer Alex Erdman, who gave the presentation, it’s all about making use easier and better for users. “We know people often use three or four devices. Each might have its own stylus. And because they’re proprietary, the pens are expensive,” he explained. A standard could “broaden the market, increase market opportunity, and bring the cost down on components as the industry scales up.” It could, in other words,do for the stylus what USB did for wired peripherals.

To make USI possible, Intel is relying on a new driver called Intel Precise Touch, which is loaded when a supported device boots. The current Microsoft Surface Pro 4 and Surface Book already use this driver. When loaded, the driver off-loads the task of recognizing pen input to the system’s integrated graphics — presumably, Intel’s HD Graphics. Which, of course, means this implementation isn’t going to work with devices that have, say, a Qualcomm SoC.

Intel says the performance impact of offloading touch recognition to the GPU is minimal. There’s no difference in “normal” desktop use. If the GPU is fully loaded, then using a stylus may reduce the GPU’s performance in other tasks by up to 10 percent.

All Intel 6th-gen and 7th-gen processors support the Precise Touch driver. Currently, Intel has developed a Precise Touch driver for Windows, and for Chrome OS. A driver for Linux is reportedly being considered, but Intel hasn’t set a date for its release.

What all this means for you, is that you may soon be able to purchase whatever specific stylus meets your need, rather than relying on whatever came with your device. Opening up the stylus in this way would at least be of interest to digital artists and their editors, who are understandably picky about the tools they use. It might also slash the price on replacement styluses from their current stratospheric heights.

Update 8/17/2016 7:00PM: Intel contacted us to explain that USI can be used with any device, so long as it has a chip that supports the USI standard’s specification.

Deals

Best deals on home security cameras to save you from package thieves

Home security camera systems can help keep your home and your family safe. Amazon's deals on Blink security cameras and Ring Video Doorbells also help you save money on devices you can access regardless of your current location.
Computing

Microsoft Surface Pro 6: Everything you need to know

The Surface Pro 6 is officially here, though it's not as big of a redesign as you might have hoped. With a new coat of black paint and an 8th-gen processor, this is a small update. If you've been eyeing a Surface Pro, you may want to wait…
Mobile

Want to watch Netflix in bed or browse the web? We have a tablet for everyone

There’s so much choice when shopping for a new tablet that it can be hard to pick the right one. From iPads to Android, these are our picks for the best tablets you can buy right now whatever your budget.
Mobile

5G’s arrival is transforming tech. Here’s everything you need to know to keep up

It has been years in the making, but 5G is finally becoming a reality. While 5G coverage is still extremely limited, expect to see it expand in 2019. Not sure what 5G even is? Here's everything you need to know.
Computing

Will Windows 95 be reimagined? Microsoft’s tweet hints at a throwback

The classic Windows operating system may just be getting a reboot of its own. Microsoft tweeted a cryptic message involving the Windows 95 logo and saying that it had a special announcement for its customers today.
Computing

Style up your MacBook Air with one of these great cases or sleeves

Whether you’re looking for added protection or a stylish flourish, you’re in the right place for the best MacBook Air cases. We have form-hugging cases, luxurious covers and padded sleeves priced from $7 to $130. Happy shopping!
Mobile

Leave the laptop at home, the iPad Pro is the travel buddy to take on vacay

The iPad Pro is a powerful tablet that's perfect for creatives and professionals. How does it fare when traveling with it as a laptop replacement? We took it on a two week trek in Japan to find out.
Computing

Want to make one hard drive act like two? Here's how to partition in Windows

If you don't want all of your files stored in one place but only have one drive to work with, partitioning is your best way forward. Here's how to partition a hard drive in Windows 10, step by step.
Computing

Does Qualcomm's latest laptop processor hold up against Intel's Core i5?

Qualcomm has been nipping at Intel's mobile CPU heels for years and now it might finally have overtaken it. To find out whether it's new SoC can hold its own in mid-range computing, we pitted the Snapdragon 8cx vs. Core i5.
Photography

Not just for Lightroom anymore, Loupedeck+ now works with Photoshop

Loupedeck+ can now help photographers edit in Photoshop too, thanks to physical controls for swapping tools, running actions, and more. The photo-editing console expanded to include Photoshop in the list of compatible editing programs.
Computing

Turn your Raspberry Pi into a Steam streaming hub with Valve’s Steam Link app

Valve's Steam Link app is now fully supported by Raspberry PI hardware, meaning that just about anyone with a few dollars to spare can build their own Steam streaming box in a matter of minutes.
Computing

Amazon takes $300 off Intel Core i7 Surface Pro 6 in latest sale

If you're looking for savings on the Surface Pro 6, Amazon is the place to shop. It currently is discounting the Intel Core i7 variant of Microsoft's latest 2-in-1 by $300, though no Type Cover is included.
Music

Here's our head-to-head comparison of Pandora and Spotify

Which music streaming platform is best for you? We pit Spotify versus Pandora, two mighty streaming services with on-demand music and massive catalogs, comparing every facet of the two services to help you decide which is best.
Computing

Our favorite Chrome themes add some much-needed pizzazz to your boring browser

Sometimes you just want Chrome to show a little personality and ditch the grayscale for something a little more lively. Lucky for you, we've sorted through the Chrome Web Store to find best Chrome themes available.