Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Innovating From An Outer Space: Vector Magic

It seems that more often than not these days we have stories like the one I am about to tell you. It is a story where the innovation originates from outside of its domain. James Diebel and Jacob Norda are not graphic designers. James is a computer science PhD student at Stanford University and Jacob is a software engineer. Together they have teamed up to create an experience in a year that a multi-billion dollar company couldn't do for over a decade. They have created an amazing tool that converts pixel-based images into vector graphics. To put it better, they have created something that does this almost flawlessly in a space where traditional graphic design players like Adobe have done it with sub-par results. Oh yeah...and they do it in a web app developed in Flex, an Adobe product. Sweet.

I spoke with James to learn a bit more about the product lifecycle they employed and find out what was the impetus behind the creation. The inspiration came from the need for using vector graphic in papers for figures. It was purely academic. Instead of a designer's approach, it took a mathematician's fresh set of eyes to get this problem solved. There are advantages that he feels that they had driving innovation that a larger corporation wouldn't have:

  • The ability to throw out the past
  • Having a personal stake in the outcome
  • The smaller the team, the more agile they could be

Another thing James thinks was helpful was having a beta online. They were able to get a more realistic set of images that real users would be converting, not just "mathy" ones. Of course, the public beta had its downside. "Once we were Dugg, the usage patterns and server got screwed up. We went from 200 images a day to 20,000. It was a complete meltdown."

Having a vector version of an image has always had tremendous value. The file size is dramatically smaller and you can do really cool things with it in Photoshop, Illustrator and Flash. Adobe used to charge in the neighborhood of $200 for a product called Streamline, that always got you about 70% of the way there. You never got the results you wanted and you had to spend a lot of time tweaking the output. I mean a lot of time that you really did not enjoy. Since they discontinued Streamline, Adobe has offered a "Live Trace" tool in Illustrator which basically gives you the same humdrum results.

With Vector Magic, fantastic output is only part of the glee you get from using the product. I was able to enjoy the overall experience. The goal here is simple, so the mechanism should be as well. The software is smart and walks me through the process, asking me questions along the way. "This looks like a graphic, not an image...This looks like it uses few colors...Are you happy with the results or do you want to modify the settings?" It was great that the software was one step ahead of me the entire time, holding my hand.

Here are some side-by-side examples of Vector Magic that are really amazing, especially because I didn't have to edit them at all:

Graphic (logo) conversion:

Photo conversion:


You can download these files to see the results up close:

You can test out Vector Magic for yourself here: http://vectormagic.com/

Please send them feedback: http://vectormagic.com/main/contact

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