Signature capture on steroids

In our most recent podcast, Dan Bricklin described a new data type under development as part of the future tablet app building tools. The part of that podcast that got me really excited is the fact that annotations applied to images will be saved as a new data type in the database. In other words, if a user draws on an image with a tablet app, the marks they made will be recorded separately from the image. Dan calls this new data type “ink”. Listen to this excerpt from the podcast on the use of ink, then I’ll obsess some about the implications.

Pretty cool, right? So what does this actually mean in terms of use cases? The key is that ink will be available to manipulate programmatically. The ink data type is not just a bitmap of the lines drawn on an image. It is a point by point capture of what the user drew, including position, width, color, etc.

One of the things this makes possible is collaborative annotations. Multiple users could draw on a copy of the same image, and then all of their ink could be combined on the same image. You will also be able to apply numeric processing on the ink, such as calculating the size of a circle drawn on an image, or the proximity of ink annotations made by different users.

I can think of so many use cases, such as in construction or urban planning, where a map is marked up with circles, lines, and arrows, and as a way of communicating something that is very hard to do with words. Imagine a picture of a machine under development where the designers and engineers have to point to key areas under discussion. How can you easily describe a position on an image with words? Ink makes this a breeze.

The fascinating thing for me as a long-time student of Dan’s work with spreadsheets is that this is another example of adding “thereness” to software. The magic part of spreadsheets was that you could create a formula by saying “that number plus this number” simply by pointing. Ink adds the same ability to easily mark a part of an image to say “there is where the change should be made.”