How Adobe Built A Stylus Fit For The Cloud

Earlier this week we learned that Adobe is abandoning Creative Suite for the cloud. But at the tail end of its announcement, the company also revealed a surprising little hardware project that shows how it plans to augment Creative Cloud: a pressure-sensitive iPad stylus called Project Mighty and its ruler cousin, Napoleon.

A digital stylus (much less a digital ruler!) isn’t the most intuitive project for Adobe right now. While plenty of people use styli, many tablet screens still aren't sensitive enough to make “drawing” feel like drawing. But Adobe seems willing to bet that the screen technology will improve soon enough -- and in the meantime, they’re throwing some cash at developing the tools that could make it useful.

About a year ago, Adobe tapped Ammunition, the San Francisco industrial design studio responsible for Nook and Lady Gaga’s Beatz by Dre headphones, to develop a hardware toolkit that would improve how we use tablets during the design process. “Adobe really felt that the iPad had the potential to become a creative tool, but that it just wasn’t there yet,” Ammunition founder Robert Brunner told me over the phone yesterday. “We see them as the first step towards a tool-based suite.”

As a drawing tool, Mighty makes a big jump by tethering your identity and settings to the pen. It sounds simple, but Adobe’s new Creative Cloud is intended to let you move between devices with ease, which means that preserving your styles and preferences could be a problem. Mighty stores all of that information -- line weight, style and a host of others -- so that when you change devices, your "hand" stays the same. Ammunition also designed a clever-looking UI that takes full advantage of your fingers to erase and undo, and the stylus' product design itself, with its triangular section and LED indicator light, is very elegant.

Napoleon -- so named for its diminutive stature -- is harder to explain. The thin device sits in your left (or right, depending) hand as you draw with Mighty, letting you select particular lines with your fingers. So if you want to draw an arc of a certain size, you tap the arc prompt, and Napoleon guides your hand towards precision. You could argue something like this is unnecessary for casual “ideation” (which, ugh), but for architects and designers it could be the key to integrating tablet sketches into a productive workflow. It's a bit like a drop-down Adobe toolbar made physical, but comparing it to a ruler makes it easier to relate to. “In a touch-based world, you can make a tool that looks like anything," says Brunner. "But why not make it look like something we’ve been familiar with for a long, long time?”

So what should we make of both pieces of hardware? First of all, they’re not destined for stores anytime soon. So to a certain extent, these are think pieces, aimed at exploring how Creative Cloud will function as a toolkit in the real world. And we can expect to see more of them in the coming months, since according to Brunner, several other similar projects are in the works.

“These devices could become your gateway into the cloud,” Brunner explains. “This could be the way you bring your content with you.” In other words, Mighty and Napoleon give us a peek at how smart hardware will eventually augment Adobe's virtual software. We usually talk about the Internet of Things in terms of the city or the home -- but it’s about to start changing the creative process too.