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Breathing life into messy sketches

By Nick Easen for CNN

Smart software could take notebook computers and slates into a new era.
Smart software could take notebook computers and slates into a new era.

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(CNN) -- Smart software will soon breathe life into our messy freehand sketches, revolutionizing the way designers work and children study.

A rough hand-drawn car, arrow and slope could soon be recognized by a tablet PC and then animated, so we can see how our designs should work and look in real life.

The old computer interface of type, point and click will be replaced by sketch, gesture and talk according to the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

"We have shown that it is credible for a drawing medium to exist that understands what you are sketching, and can then assist with the task in some way," Randall Davis, whose MIT team are working on the project told CNN.

The software observes what we draw on the screen and then turns the sketch into computer code. The smart program is able to interpret what we had in mind from the crude drawing we actually penned out.

After it has understood the diagram and created an interpretation, it then animates the sketch by applying the laws of physics to create motion using gravity and momentum -- balls roll down slopes, a propeller creates lift.

"People clearly reason spatially and with images as well. We think it will be important for computers to be able to do the same," says Davis.

One of the team's most difficult tasks is getting the software to match our human ability to understand complicated sketches.

Our eyes and brain work together in a remarkable fashion to sort out what all the lines and curves might mean. Currently, not one machine is able to match our speed and effectiveness.

The scientists are trying to duplicate our own capability, but it means developing a large body of knowledge about how people draw and what things mean in different contexts.

The MIT team hopes to have a fully functional program up and running within three years. And with more tablet PCs in the marketplace and the price of memory dropping, there could be many commercial opportunities for such software.

Research by IBM has also shown that in the next few years, it is estimated that more than 40 percent of data and Web access will be with devices that are not traditional PCs.

"The evolution of e-business is pushing computing beyond traditional PCs, beyond wireless phones and PDAs, to a new generation of devices," Harriet Ip of IBM told CNN.

Beyond paper and pen

The software allows design to move beyond the mouse and keyboard.
The software allows design to move beyond the mouse and keyboard.

Even with today's technology, designers still sketch their ideas on paper before putting them into computer aided design (CAD) software. The new software could save them a lot of time.

"People will be freed from the absurd requirement that we communicate with software by typing and using a mouse. We don't communicate with one another this way, so why should we do so with software?" adds Davis.

Currently physics students also have to imagine how certain principles involving movement work through static printed pictures.

One of the team's long-term dreams is to bring real-time motion to these diagrams.

"Not only should I be able to watch things happen in my electronic physics textbook, I ought to be able to tinker with the diagram they have drawn and try out other possibilities," says Davis.

This smart software could take notebook computers and slates into a new era by using their drawing capabilities as well as our own to create a whole new visual-based environment for communicating ideas.

Although computer-aided design, education and software design are seen as the key market, these may just be the initial areas the software exploits.

"The unanticipated uses are almost always the most interesting," adds Davis.

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