Augmented Sketching Book?

This week there is buzz about Moleskine’s digital extensions. I like their blank books (though, let’s be honest—a notebook is a notebook), and I use digital tools a lot. You’ve got my attention.

Actually, they several products, but the basic goal is to cleanly and productively bridge between “analog” and digital creation. In this case, people are carrying a mobile device (with increasingly capable image, video, and sound) and a blank paper book with pen or pencil. How do we want these to mix?

Let me step back and think about the problem.

Thinking about the unique purpose of the blank book, I’d say that it is crucial as a private (unmediated) record of personal life. It’s my diary, my sketch book, my notes. Recorded by me, in person, in situ. I’m talking to myself. (Many of us also get sensual pleasure out of touching the paper, dragging the pen or pencil, feeling the resistance.)

The mobile device that I carry is all about connecting and sharing. It is where I see my friends, coworkers, community, and everyone; and where I may be seen. It can also be a way to share ideas via digital artifacts, including first person imagery, video, audio, and so on.

Clearly, these are complementary tools, which is why so many people carry both.

But how would I want them to work together?

One thing that would be nice would be ways to link from the paper book to important references. I.e., when I (hand) write some notes about, say Moleskine, it would be nice to be able to paste in the URL, and maybe quoted text or image. I do this all the time in digital notes, but it ain’t easy in my paper book: hand writing URLs is, well, not fun. And almost useless, since I’ll have to type them in to actually use them.

It would also be nice to go the other way, to be able to paste from my hand notes and drawings into digital working pages. This is surely possible with my smartphone camera, but it is painful and crude.


The basic idea is clear. We want some painless way to link, up-, and download. We have a smartphone. We can make this better.

My thinking above makes it clear what Moleskine has been trying to do. They have some ideas about connecting to online reference materials. And the buzz is about their app that connects to a “Creative Cloud”: capture and upload pages from your blank book.

The latter app uses the mobile device to snap an image of a page, apply some serious processing to get a decent result without so much pain, and upload it in a form that will work with digital tools. We could do this already, with significant effort.

As far as I can tell, the paper notebook has a little bit of augmentation that assists the processing (guide markers), though I can’t imagine these can’t be counterfeited. Other than that, I don’t think the paper book is particularly special. That’s fine.

The app seems to have a nice set of image processing, which automatically captures the page in imperfect and unpredictable lighting. Then the imagery is uploaded to their proprietary “cloud” in formats that can be immediately sucked into Adobe tools. I haven’t tried it, but it certainly looks painless compared to what I have done by hand. Good work.

Things I don’t like:

First, it is iOS-only at this time. Which is why I can’t try it.  Get serious people, support all major platforms.

Second, I’m not sure I can get my data except through the proprietary partner software (Adobe).

Effectively, with this app my personal notebook is wired into Adobe (via Apple). No thanks.

A more philosophical question is how the product changes the basic meaning of the blank book. The “creative cloud” is all about sharing and collaborating, which are good and necessary things (whether a “cloud” is the right way to do it or not). But my blank book is not about sharing, IMO.

The question is, does this app invade the mental space of the private notebook, pushing it out onto the Internet?   The app itself doesn’t make you put anything in the cloud (you have to choose and push the button). But it clearly invites you to, and creates demands from others to do so.

If and when I ever get one of these apps, I think I will want to be careful about how I use it. There is something to be said for requiring effort to share or publish stuff from my personal notes. I think I like the gap between my hand written notes and the digital maelstrom: it makes it more private and makes me think about what should be digitized.

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