The Type (In)Spector: A Conversation with Fiona O’Leary
We published this article about a year ago and it was hit! So, we decided to bring this post back from the blog archives for your reading pleasure. Enjoy!
You’re probably aware of the hubbub surrounding the designer Fiona O’Leary and her new gadget, Spector. A hand-held device that recognizes text and colors in the real world, and converts them in real-time to the exact typeface, size, leading, kerning, and Pantone code, Spector has been covered in every design publication from DesignBoom to Wired to The Verge, and elsewhere. Fiona graciously took the time to answer a few questions for us.
Let’s start with your telling us a bit about your background. How did you first become interested in design and invention?
I graduated with a Bachelors in Visual Communication from the National College of Art and Design in Dublin in 2010. After that, I worked as a graphic designer at a studio called Creative Inc, in Dublin, for three years. While I was there I gained a lot of valuable experience about printing and typography. However, I wanted more of a challenge, and to do more interactive projects, so I applied to Fabrica, a communication research unit in Italy run by United Colors of Benetton.
Throughout my one-year residency at Fabrica I got to experiment with a lot of different types of projects, from UI design to urban design to product design.
I got really interested in designing physical objects, and decided to apply to the Royal College of Art in London. They had a course there called Design Products, and I really liked the sound of that. It isn’t your typical product design course; it’s split into 5 platforms, which are groups of 8 to 10 students, and lead by two tutors. Each platform has a different theme, and challenges a different facade of product design.
I joined Platform 24, which is called Object Mediated Interactions, and is run by Durrell Bishop and Oscar Lhermitte. We focused on the field of product design that connects new, digital developments with the physical environment. It was all about designing solutions that take the systems behind products—as well as their real properties—into account.
What was the inspiration for Spector? Is there a story behind it?
I came up with this idea out of frustration. When you’re designing for print, it never looks the same on screen as it does in the finalized print.
You have no idea of the scale of the page, and the typography and colors often visualize differently too. I thought, if you are going to design for print on a screen, why not start with print material? And why not make it interactive?
As designers, we always collect lots of nice samples of inspiration. I wanted to utilize these samples by making them interactive.
Tell us a bit more about Spector. How have you felt about all the publicity that it has been getting? Did you anticipate that it would go this viral?
I see this tool as a way of understanding typography, and making typesetting more transparent, by communicating invisible factors such as size, kerning, and leading. This helps educate the user about typography.
I also see it as a way of taking the guessing game out of typesetting, so that when it comes to printing your book or page from Adobe InDesign, since you took it from a piece of printed material, you already know what it’s going to look like. I see it as useful tool for students who are just starting out as a graphic designer.
That said, I didn’t anticipate it going viral at all! However, I can understand how people identify with it, as it addresses a very common problem. It is nice to see how passionate people are about it.
Why did you choose to create a physical gadget, rather than software?
I chose to create a physical gadget for two reasons. The first is more technical: it would be difficult to write software for every camera that exists on every iPhone and Android phone. It made more sense to write software for a specific camera, which we had control over.
Also, the camera needed to be at a specific focal length, to make sure that the samples that were sent over to the database would be consistent.
The second reason is I wanted to design a tool for graphic designers that would be physical. I did a lot of research into the physical tools graphic designers had before computers, and they were really beautiful. I wanted my device to hark back to those tools.
I wanted it to be reminiscent of them, interactive, and useful. Thats why the visual language of Spector recalls a loupe.
How does Spector work? (Go ahead and get technical, if you like.)
Spector’s software works as an InDesign plugin, with a live feed of the camera. The hardware connects to the computer via bluetooth.
The user presses the button on the device, takes a picture of the font with a macro camera, and matches this picture to a font database. Spector can only detect one typeface at a time (that helps with typeface recognition), however it can detect several colors at the same time.
High resolution and a sharp image are pretty essential, too. A sample has to be right-side up, as well. But beyond quality-related elements, probably the most important thing is that you have a varied sample of characters. In fact, there is a preference for certain characters: the letter O is usually not very distinctive, but a g or G can pinpoint a font from a single glyph.
Having more distinctive characters lowers the chance of Spector detecting the wrong font. In terms of memory, it can store up to 10 fonts at the same time, and 10 colors, or 20 fonts and 0 colors. Basically, it can store 20 snap pictures.
Spector uses machine learning, and it is all based on algorithms. For kerning and leading, it needs to be as horizontal as possible. Subsequently, detecting a typeface or font by the shape of the letters is the straightforward part.
Once there’s a match for a font, Spector’s metrics calculate the leading by comparing the baselines, if there are multiple lines in the sample. The kerning can be calculated by the taking the leftmost edge of the first recognized character, and the rightmost edge of the last recognized character, in a series of recognized characters.
This length is compared to the metrics to give a relative kerning size.
At the moment, Spector can only detect up to 48pt fonts, but this is something were working on as we continue to play around with different types of lenses and focal points.
Ultimately, I see it as a tool for typesetting—using books and posters and signage as your source material—rather than big billboards, as they would most likely use headline or display fonts, rather than body copy fonts.
Where do you see yourself—and Spector—going in the future? Will you be bringing this product to market?
I do hope to bring Spector to market, and am currently looking for streams of funding. There is a lot to do, but I think with the right resources this product could be kick-started in the next year or two. I envision a special type specimen book being sold with the tool, too.
As for myself, I want to keep designing products like this, products that help us understand software. I have another product—which was my other graduation project—called MIMO, which challenges our daily interaction with the process of copy-and-paste. I would like to bring this market, too, eventually.
For now, the design process is far from over. The real work is only beginning.
Spector had been my graduation project up until now, just me working on it, with some technical help from an interaction designer, David van Gemeran, so I was really making decisions simply based on what I like. Now that I am working on bringing it to market, the real roadblocks will begin.