The humble stylus may be getting a radical makeover, with powerful touch and other sensors built into the tablet and smartphone accessory, according to a Microsoft patent recently approved by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Microsoft's next-generation digital pen, or "ePen," includes not just touch sensors but also a gyroscope, compass, accelerometers, and other sensors. These sensors add functionality that goes beyond just tapping and scribbling. The patent application drawings revealed by tech patent analysis site PatentBolt show, for example, that the ePen could let you select ink colors on the fly by changing the angle you hold it, adjust the line thickness by virtually "sharpening" the digital pen with a twist, or turn it into an eraser using a different grip. It's like the stylus on steroids. These features will obviously appeal to digital artists and other creative types, but there's also huge potential for this multi-touch pen outside of drawing and painting apps. The ePen could become a new game controller, a music instrument, or simply a better, more customizable input device for your next touchscreen computer. Despite Apple's dismissal of the stylus as a useful accessory, the lowly digital pen is making a comeback. Witness, for example, the wide appeal of the Samsung Galaxy Note's line of stylus-sporting tablets and smartphones. Microsoft's upcoming Surface Pro tablet is also designed with an active dual digitizer for digital inking. I've owned a number of tablet PCs with styluses that could do impressive tricks--for example, turn on the eraser function when turned upside down or bring up the context menu with a press of a button on the stylus--and they were really useful in apps like OneNote and Corel Painter. But none of them were as advanced as the ePen is supposed to be.
A stylus that can help you not just take notes but also work with your apps more quickly, precisely, and even automatically (e.g., based on your position or grip) could take using your mobile device to the next level. This will depend, of course, on whether such an ePen ever comes to market (Microsoft filed the patent application in the first quarter of 2011) and how much it will cost. For now, we're stuck with imprecise fingers and primitive styluses--but hopefully not for long. Follow Melanie Pinola (@melaniepinola) and Today@PCWorld on Twitter