Adobe has always been a software company, but last month it revealed it was tinkering with something new: hardware. Its first efforts are Project Mighty, a smart stylus with Creative Cloud integration, and Project Napoleon, a smart ruler that can create a variety of different shapes. The company is calling the tools "experiments" — not products — but it's clear that Adobe has put a lot of thought into them both. We've just gotten a chance to play around with their early prototypes to get a better sense of how they work.
Mighty and Napoleon remain 'experiments'
Mighty has iterated through a number of different prototypes, but the basic design remains the same: the pen has a small pressure-sensitive rubber tip, a single button, and three sides that gently twist as they reach the top. It's light but on the thicker side, made primarily out of aluminum, and has small plastic caps to house a Bluetooth LE antenna. While the pen may not look ergonomic, the spiraling shape does a really nice job of curving up from between your fingers to cradle beside your thumb and forefinger.
If you're not an artist, Mighty won't change that, but it does a good job of drawing naturally and accurately on the iPad. There can be a bit of lag, however, though the delay isn't really an impediment during use. Outside of drawing, just about every virtual feature of the pen can be controlled using its sole button. A single tap opens an on-screen menu that allows quick swapping of colors, brushes, and size. And a combination of long and short presses can be used to copy and paste different layers of your project.
To work its magic, Mighty has been tightly integrated with a modified version of Adobe's iOS drawing app, Ideas. Every time Mighty copies an image, Ideas will have the copy sent into your personal cloud, and you can almost instantly pull that back down onto any device you’d like — even if you’ve never used it before. The stylus uses a minuscule 8 kilobytes of storage to remember who you are, and by sending that bit of information over to a new device, Mighty can quickly find and display the files and color palettes you have stored up in Creative Cloud.
But some of the most useful aspects of Mighty don't actually exist on the pen itself. While the pen is active, tapping with your fingers on the display will either undo or redo an action, and swiping a finger around can erase content. All three are really convenient gestures, though in practice they tend to just make up for how time consuming it can be to navigate menus in Adobe's apps.
Right now, Mighty is only enabled in Ideas, but in the future its integration could come to all Adobe iOS apps, and even third-party apps. A software development kit is in the works, though the team is keeping it internal for now.
Adobe is also working on a number of chargers for Mighty. It doesn’t want to include any ports on the device, and it’s hoping that by making a stand with Apple-like aesthetics, the device can fit right into a designer’s workspace. There are a few different models right now, including a cube that elevates the pen and a bed that it can rest in.
Napoleon is just a prop
Adobe's newer project, Napoleon, helps to explain how these are still experiments. Napoleon is a short, plastic and aluminum tool that displays a digital ruler on-screen. It has a series of buttons on top of it that ostensibly can be used to swap between different shapes, like a square or a circle. But right now, Napoleon isn't much more than a prop with software integration — those buttons along the top don't work yet, and there's not actually any tech inside of the device.
Instead, Napoleon works because Adobe's app knows exactly how far apart its contact points are. When Napoleon is placed on an iPad or iPad mini, digital lines will shoot out from it, almost like an on-screen laser level that you’re forced to trace along. Even though there’s no tech inside of it, Napoleon activates immediately, and it really feels like you're using a physical tool to manipulate a digital image.
Until Napoleon's development advances, Adobe is using on-screen buttons to change the ruler into those different shapes, including a triangle, circle, and even a french curve. A little ball pops up along the shape's digital outline, and dragging that ball in or out will make the shape larger or smaller.
However, Adobe is considering leaving behind the multiple buttons altogether. A future model might have a single button, and pressing it would open up a tray of different shape options that could change based on the user’s preference.
When it comes down to it, Napoleon is a superfluous peripheral — all of its tricks could be recreated in software alone. But Napoleon evokes a certain nostalgia. There's a visceral feeling to using a physical tool, and while that may be unnecessary for some, it's easy to see how a lot of people could enjoy the convenience and aesthetics of it.
Development on both tools has all happened in just over a year. Since then, Adobe has teamed up with a pair of other companies to make both ideas a reality, and it’s put together something of a dream team. It's collaborating with both Ammunition, the company behind the design of Beats headphones and the Nook, and MindTribe, the company responsible for engineering on the Jawbone headset.
Despite the collaboration, Adobe was quick to stress that both Mighty and Napoleon are just investigations into hardware. They aren't saying whether the tools could one-day become full products, and certainly a lot of work still remains. But there are plenty of people who would enjoy the physical presence evoked by Napoleon, and Adobe's cloud integration could make Mighty a lot smarter than the average stylus. There's a good chance Adobe realizes that — and its experiments are evolving quickly.