How Much Harder Could Smart Phones Work For Designers?

Is it me or do most designers and digital artists these days own smart phones? And even then, mainly iPhones. Most of us new-fangled-artist-cum-computer-jockey types own phones with more computing power and connectivity then my first desktop PC and nearly more power then some relatively recent laptops.

So shouldn’t we all be super productive mobile artists now, right? Well in some cases maybe, and for some artists smart phones do enough to fill the void outside of the studio. Although a lot of artists who are mobile are geared up with Macbook Pros or similar such powerful portable computers, but I feel the laptop computer looses the convergence of power and connectivity the smart phone can bring to the table, and fitting a MacBook in a trouser pocket is not the easiest thing to do. I feel that these new devices should be right there as a vital part of the 21st century designers arsenal, and unless twitter is vital to your art I’m not convinced phones are there yet and that they could work harder.

I’m going to take a look at different practises and the current relevance smart phones have to them and then what more smart phones could do. I’m not going to suggest phones will replace Macbook Pros and high end desktop rigs, there will always be artists who need what a more powerful and permanent setup can bring, more how we can achieve more on the go.

Web design/Coding

In no particular order I’m going to start with the web designers and coders, so stand up and listen please net monkeys. Ok, sit then.

Web design is one of the better catered arts over mobile platforms. This is for the better part because the meat and veg of it is code. A working text editor, a file browser and a good FTP client are the bare essentials for the code Ninja. Estrongs file explorer on Android is great for this as it’s a fully featured file browser with LAN and FTP modes to seamlessly integrate the whole process and keep it simple, and it’s free! One up the robots.

But in case your view of the world is like mine, and you don’t see everything as cascading lines of code, you’ll want a more human solution. Apps like Gusto and Edith on iOS provide a more intuitive interface and method of managing websites. Both too come with FTP access and a limited local file browser for each project. With a tabbed interface for multiple local documents open at once and a local preview function and you’d think this would be enough. Well the text editor works well enough at a code level, but with no design view it leaves the more visual developers at a bit of a loss.

I’m not saying I want to see Dreamweaver mobile… Actually I am. Now I know there are people who despise this program but there are those who rely upon it and a rudimentary implementation of this with predictive markup as in the desktop and the ability to visualise things better would be welcome. The fact most smart phones have predictive text as well as corrective text means this is possible and I do think for on the go coding it would work.

But this leaves out designers, what do they do? Well on iOS it’s iMockups and iSite for iPad. So smaller screened non iOS handsets are a little out in the cold here, but what about functioning design with HTML and generating assets? Well there are vector graphics solutions available, such as sketch pad and iDesign but even on the iPad, it’s hideously simplified and altogether unusable for all but the most basic primitives. This is largely due to the relatively poor precision you can achieve with capacitive touch screens and meaty designer sausage fingers. It results in ‘fisher price’ sized handles for controlling splines and despite apples slick multi touch and the pinch-to-zoom allowing you to get face to face with the cold hard vectors, the process is frustrating. I’d hazard a guess my experience with these packages aren’t a totally indicative of other users, but it hints at perhaps a bigger problem with smart phones themselves in relation to art. I’ll touch on this later.

On a side note, I stumbled upon iSite HD the other day which sports the tag-line, “who needs to worry about HTML?” – web designers that’s who. Looking at screen shots it seems to be full of apples brand of family friendly handles with a drag-to-design interface reminiscent of Words. Sounds alright in practise, but at £5.99 it’s a hefty punt for what could easily be a pile. I don’t envisage such an app being altogether that powerful, though if I can’t find a review of it, I may just go nuts and give it a go.

So web designers could need text entry, support for markup characters, FTP and local file access, project management, predictive coding (to speed things up and help the less able, yes hello that’s me), capable 2D vector and illustration packages and finally a robust design app to mash it together. Anything else you’d like from Santa? I’m not a pro with web design so those of you who are more demanding might know of or need some extra utilities.

3D Graphics

Us 3 dimensional recluses, as opposed to all you 2D folk (you wish you had this extra extrusion) have very few options on the move. The the pre production elements of 3D art are covered, such as sketching and storyboarding (see Cinemek Storyboard Composer, iOS), but what if you actually want to do 3D? Now there are some attempts at 3D modelling software in iOS such as Voxel and Sculpt Master 3D with android dragging it’s heels but still with an intriguing app, 3D Scanner.

Voxel is an curious one, if a little clumsy. You don’t model per se, more add and remove different coloured blocks, Lego modelling basically. It’s a novel and fun idea and reportedly in the full version supports the ability to export .obj files. For the lesser nerd, that’s a near universality accepted 3D geometry format. Sounds useful though the act of making objects in this way leads to a limited use. Mainly 3D pixel art and layouts, nothing really practical unless you client likes ‘blocky’. Even this isn’t a reason to hold the app back, though I feel the interface is. There is a trial version and I encourage people to give it a go, but it’s this issue of 3D space, 2D screen and limited input options. Now it does use the iDevice’s accelerometer to allow you to more literally rotate the view port and it’s good to adjust your perspective, but you have to question rotating your interface away from you in order to get a better view of the object your “modelling”.

3D scanner, now in 3rd beta for android is a very promising experiment and aims to do precisely what it’s name suggests – act as a 3D scanner. The concept is simple, take two photos of an object at different angles and let the app communicate with an external server, and that generates a 3D mesh of what you’ve just photographed. Impressed? Don’t be just yet, in practise it’s a very awkward process which is obviously being worked upon. It’s the kind of app which you keep and check back on every new update because if it works, it’ll be handy.

So maybe smart phones aren’t the place for 3D graphics yet. The main concern for me is the interface and how you control objects in 3D space. Part of it has something to do with power of the devices, but with 1.5 GHz dual core mobile processors on the horizon and the likes of the apple A4 (as seen in the iPhone 4 and iPad) and Samsung Hummingbird (As seen in their Galaxy line of phones and tablets) out in devices now, we’re not exactly out of options for basic modelling power. I just don’t think there has been any real innovation or investment in how to manipulate 3D virtual space. The next question is how useful such an app would be on a phone… Well actually not very I would have thought, this seems more suited for tablet realms, though apps like brushes on iOS have been very popular even on the iPhone where it started so who knows.

Another area of consideration for 3D works I’ll level more specifically at the iPhone 4 and it’s new gyroscope and it’s smooth 720p recording. Not seen where this is going? Camera movement data captured along with the footage. There could be a potential problem with accurately capturing camera dollies and other instances where the camera man actually moves, but ‘on the spot’ moves would suffice, especially since the gyroscope is pretty precise. Some GPS trickery could potentially fill the gaps too. The idea behind all of this is that if you’re out and about, you want to video something – say your a more indie marketing brand, or you simply want to test something – pull out HDCameraTrack on you’re iPhone 4, take your 30 second clip and load it onto your computer. Then feed the camera movement data from the app into software and you’re done, no tedious camera tracking in post production to composite CGI and live action. If you have herd of it else where or know of this app, tell me and I’ll buy an iPhone for it, seriously this could be awesome.

So 3D, really we just need a little more grunt, and some keen developer support. I don’t think 3D can’t be done, I just think it’s still a lightly trodden track. Oh and don’t forget the camera tracking package with maybe even some basic compositing with 3D objects. This will really take use of the convergent camera and sensor technologies in offer.


Now this is one which has the software nearly covered, on iOS at least. Brushes, Sketchbook Pro, I don’t need to list them all and won’t, but it’s easy to see some accomplished illustrations pushed out of touch screen phones and tablets, so what’s the problem? Well most artists who uses these apps will still take their illustrations to Photoshop to finish with their Wacom tablets and the like. There is defiantly some precision lacking in the use of capacitive touch screens. That’s not to knock the technology, on the contrary, it’s finger painting that is the problem. The screens are precise enough, but it’s incredibly difficult to see exactly where you are painting when you finger is on the screen. The only way of remedying this, similar to my vector troubles, is to zoom right into ridiculous levels. But that’s not always feasible or efficient. Solution could be styli, I don’t mean the pogo kind or indeed cold meat sausages. Capacitive screens work by passing a small current across the surface of the screen and you’re finger or sausage completes the circuit. Sensors in the screen can then detect where you touch. Whilst some styli can be a little more precise, some even with polo’s on the end of them, you cannot best a good resistive screen for this purpose. These types of screen are commonly regarded inferior by Engadget’s elitist readership, and for tapping out text messages this may be the case. But you can use finer tipped pointing implements which results in a much greater accuracy. Don’t bellyache at me about multi-touch either, was resistive can do it too.

But despite the screen type issue, and size (we can fall back on tablet devices, of which soon there will be many), Illustration can be done relatively well on the go already, even if resistive screens should be implemented more.

Film and Video

Don’t yell iPhone 4 or iMovie or I’ll have you escorted out. The iPhone 4’s video capture is cracking don’t get me wrong, and now that you can upload HD footage without having to let iTunes involved is great, if slow to the party, but iMove is not a viable option for most film makers. With only a single video and sound track usable through the edit it limits a lot of clips to cheesy iPhoto style slide shows or those with really auteur or even pretentious use of sound. Yes I did say a lot of clips not all, I’m not damning everyone who uses it, but I’m saying we need something better to cover this base. After all, multi-track editing is the way forward, as it has been for the past decade at least. I suspect it’s a hardware limitation at present, or at least I imagine that’s Apples hypothetical answer…

But realistically, most of the maverick film makers out there will possibly use a smart phone to make and edit one film, then decide real cameras are better. So expensive investment in this field would likely be wasted. But what about using our finger-print laden glass-fronted gizmo’s as production and productivity aids? Digital clapper boards, organisers, to-do lists, smart phones have legions of app developers seem intent on producing better productivity tools and thus it’s an area where phones seem to excel. Though an app which combines all the different elements of film production could really assist producer/directors in providing them all of the information they could need instantly. I just wish I had my smart phone during my last films shooting to keep me organised.


Photoshop mobile, that is all…

See I did a funny there? Yes I’m sorry, calling it Photoshop builds up impressions of so much more then this program actually offers. And whilst it is a very useful tool for touching up photos, it doesn’t really offer any depth in regards to photo manipulation. Whether it’s useful or not is up to the end user, but I’d like to see more in a single app as opposed to having swathes of slightly different photo apps for different effects or tweaks.

But then there is actually taking the photos. Up until recently the only smart phones with pretty good cameras have been rubbish smart phones, or dumb phones. I went from a k850i (5mp with xenon flash) to my current HTC Hero expecting at least comparable performance… How naive I was, HTC is still struggling to prove is validity in the camera phone space in my opinion. It’s only really the iPhone 4 which seems to do smart phones proud in that regard. Motorola have their Milestone XT720 which has a good camera, but they have stepped down the rest of the hardware (since originally drafting this, they have announced an update to speed up the processor to 3GS like speeds, so more promising, though that’s not far from the best it’ll do now). Seemingly in case they make a phone which is too good? Don’t get me wrong, for a good few years we won’t be replacing DSLRs or even mid range compacts with phones, but I feel coming from a feature phone to a smart phone that it’s a weak area.

So Adobe, combine Sketchbook Pro with Photoshop mobile and add some more comprehensive features and I’d wager you could charge £20 and still make a decent quantity of sales, but for the time being at least the iPhone 4 would be the only real useful recipient.

Music and Sound Design

I can’t really talk at length about this one. I’ve always wanted to get into music production but I’ve never invested enough time into it. But from the brief dip into this area, there are ludicrous amounts of apps on both Android and iOS. To the point you can buy magazines dedicated to these kind of apps. They seem to encapsulate sequencers, synths, samplers, effects peddles, mixers mini controllers, virtual instruments and all the way through to reference material. There is such a variety here, yet it’s still missing the tools to put together a final product. This seems to be a trend with smart phones and is something which I’ll wrap up with. If this hits any musicians or sound designers please feel free to chime in on this with a better insight here.

Wrap up

From the aforementioned skimming of the smart phone space and applications available, I’m seeing some problems.

  1. Screen Size – From my run down and own experiences, this is a big factor in how usable these devices are as working tools.
  2. Screen Type – A by-product of screen size, the use of smaller capacitive touch screens lead to problems with any tasks requiring accuracy. Even the iPhone 4 and Samsung Galaxy S with their market-leading implementations of this technology, the fine precision is lacking. But with most tech-blogs and elitists alike lambasting implementation of resistive screens I see little advancement in this area. The answer is with more precise capacitive styli. The way the screen is lit is another consideration seeing most touch screens rendered unusable by direct sunlight. Only immediate answer here are eInk style reflective screens, and I can hardly see designers going crazy for monochrome displays…
  3. App Development – From this article with it’s many references to iTunes, I’ll forgive people for thinking I’m some sort of Apple fan boy. I’m not, but it cannot be denied that the developer support for Android is patchy even now. Even on the behemoth App Store the biggest sticking point is depth in apps. There appears to be a torrent of either incredibly specific or very loose fitting apps. There are some absolute gems out there, but it leaves a lot of designers in the cold. I’ll put this down to the mobile app scene’s relative infancy.

These 3 things combined put smart phones out of reach for most designers as production tools. It’s all about the interface! If it’s not the smaller screens making things awkward, its the lack of precision or the more infant app scene. There are some other hardware issues to overcome, but if the 3 outlined were put to bed I’d wager a great deal more designers would use phones more seriously in this regard. Even with tablet computers rolling into the spot-light this only addresses the issue of screen size. But this also introduces more compromises in regard to portability and currently results in other hardware compromises.

To round up, smart phones are compromises. Poor battery life, relatively large handsets, lower quality cameras and poorer signal reception (in specific circumstances) compared to dumber phones. And compared to Notebooks and PCs they are smaller, poorer quality software and comparatively very expensive. But these convergent, middle ground devices are always with us and bring enough to the table to make most of us grin and bear it. But they can still do more! The software and hardware need to come together for us to be more dependant on these devices as production tools. Until then I’ll keep starting sketches and layouts on my iPad or HTC Hero, but it’ll always need my PC in the loop to fine tune.

For any comments please leave all your thoughts, opinions and views on this subject leave them below.

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