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Adobe Gets Serious About Hardware, Will Start Selling Its Mighty Digital Pen And Napoleon Ruler In The First Half Of 2014

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Adobe’s first foray into hardware is about to become reality. When Adobe announced its thin-tipped Project Mighty digital pen and Napoleon digital ruler at its MAX conference earlier this year, they were still considered experiments. Even then, though, Adobe’s David Macy told me that these projects were more than just hobbies, so it is not a huge surprise that the company now says it will start selling them in the first half of 2014.

Earlier this month, I sat down with Michael Gough, who leads Adobe’s Experience Design (XD) team which incubated this project, and take the latest versions of Mighty and Napoleon for a spin. Adobe won’t say when exactly the devices will launch or how much they will cost. Gough, however, told me that the company is looking at them as a premium product, and, after holding them for a while, they definitely feel like that.

Both the Mighty and Napoleon have gone through a few design revisions since the company first showed them earlier this year. The Napoleon ruler, for example, now only features a single button to switch between different tools and shapes and the Mighty pen, which still retains its triangular form, is now charged through the back instead of the front.

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“We want to do hardware to push us,” Gough told me. The way we interact with software is changing and to stay on top of these developments, Adobe wants to try new things.

Until earlier this year, Gough told me, Adobe was still planning to go it alone and develop the project completely in-house. After MAX, though, the team decided that its core competency wasn’t really hardware, and that it would rather focus on the user experience and design instead of the technical details of the hardware. After talking to a few potential partners, Adobe decided to work with Adonit, a company that’s probably best known for its Kickstarter-financed Jot digital pens for the iPad.

Adobe plans to produce its hardware with the help of an OEM in Taiwan, though it’s still finalizing the production details. As Gough told me, the final version will likely talk to the iPad over Bluetooth to transfer data about pressure and signals from a built-in accelerometer.

The Mighty Magic? Making The iPad Recognize A Thin Tip

One of the breakthroughs with the Mighty pen is its very thin tip. By default, the iPad and most other tablets are programmed to ignore these kinds of small tips because they are optimized for our fingers. Because of this, virtually every tablet stylus uses a very thick rubber nib or, like the Jot, tries to emulate a thin tip with the help of a clear, fingertip-sized tip. If you want to use the iPad for drawing, neither of these solutions are ideal.

Unsurprisingly, Adobe won’t divulge how it gets the iPad to recognize the Mighty’s small tip beyond saying that the “magic” of getting it to work is in the front of the pen, so the team had to move the charging port to the back.

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Project Parallel And Contour

In Gough’s view, the company’s job today is to adapt to how creatives use their tools but also to the changing perception of what a “creative” is. “We want to start building the tools for this next generation of creatives, which is frigging everybody today,” Gough said. Tools, in his belief, define a generation and today, that’s mobile, so Adobe, too, has to offer the right tools on this platform.

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Besides the hardware, though, Adobe is also working on two iPad apps to showcase the hardware’s capabilities. Project Parallel (Adobe always calls unreleased but public products “project [x]“) is an iPad app for sketching that’s optimized for the Mighty and Napoleon. I had a chance to play with a pre-release version and it’s a basic tool that really comes to life thanks to the combination of the hardware and connectivity with the cloud.

Using Napoleon, for example, it’s easy to draw straight lines on the iPad, for example. When you put the device on the screen, it’ll automatically draw a line (or any other shape) in front of it and you just need to follow it with your Mighty pen. The app also does some basic snapping for users who want to do line drawings, making it easy to draw parallel lines, for example (hence the app’s name).

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One nifty feature of Napoleon and Project Parallel is that it can grab any kind of outline from the cloud. That’s where Adobe’s second software announcement today comes in.

Project Contour — as the name implies — is an iPhone app for creating these outlines. But there’s a cool twist here. You just have to take a picture of an object and the app will automatically generate the outline for you. All of the info is then synced between the devices and apps through the cloud (with Behance being the logical repository for them, though Adobe hasn’t finalized the details here, either). Gough envisions a world where anybody can make shape packs for Creative Cloud and share them.

The company plans to launch an SDK together with the two devices. Adobe’s long-term plan isn’t just to build a pen and ruler, but to create a platform that any pen can connect to. For the time being, after all, Adobe is a software company and most of its revenue will soon come from subscriptions to its Creative Cloud — and the more developers build hardware that uses Creative Cloud as its platform, the better it is for Adobe.