LIVE · Workshop on Live Programming

Inkbase: Programmable Ink

Joshua Horowitz, Szymon Kaliski, James Lindenbaum


Part of the Proceedings of the Seventh Workshop on Live Programming (LIVE 2021).


With a pen and a piece of paper, anyone can write a journal entry, draw a diagram, perform a calculation, or sketch a cartoon. Even as more sophisticated technologies arise, pen and paper maintain important roles in our lives because nothing has matched their combination of accessibility, immediacy, and flexibility.

Digital tablet/stylus sketchbooks adapt pen and paper into the world of digital media. In doing so, they trade away some of paper’s advantages (like cheapness & tangibility) in exchange for new computational powers (like nondestructive editing & ease of transmission). But in this trade, digital sketchbooks haven’t yet won the greatest computational capability of all. This is the ability to define entirely new computational behaviors, that is, to program.

The success of spreadsheets demonstrates that, given the right environment, ordinary people can make effective use of open-ended programmability – to speed computations, explore “what if?” scenarios, and explore information in entirely new ways.

What would be possible if hand-written sketchbooks were programmable like spreadsheets?

To explore this question, we built Inkbase, a programmable digital sketchbook. Inkbase integrates a conventional ink-on-tablet interface with an open-ended programming environment. With Inkbase, we studied how programmability might fluidly augment:

- organizational tasks
- creative sketching
- visual explanation
- technical thought
- … and everything else we do with pen and paper.

Workshop Presentation