A "Magic Eyedropper" Tool for Fonts? I Don't Think So

Friday, July 8, 2016
Font Eyedropper

This past week, several media outlets told us about a miraculous gizmo that promises salvation for graphic designers. "Handheld Tool Is Like Shazam for Fonts and OMG We Need It!" gushed Wired. Mashable picked up the Wired story and proclaimed that "this magical gadget can scan text and tell you what the font is." Fast Company described it as "The Ultimate Font Finder." Echoing Wired, Engadget reported that the "handheld device identifies typefaces and hues like Shazam does for songs."

They're all referring to Spector, a handheld scanner developed by Royal College of Art grad student Fiona O'Leary. The idea is compelling: You hold the gadget over a printed page and press a button. It then transmits information about the fonts and colors to InDesign or (presumably) any other desktop software.

It appears to be an impressive student project. But is it truly the "Ultimate Font Finder" or a "Shazam for fonts"? I don't think so, and the breathless hype is making these otherwise respected media outlets look ridiculous.

O'Leary herself has been fairly circumspect in her description of the device. But in one of the photos, you can see the following on the underside: "An interactive eyedropper tool for capturing type and colour."

High Expectations

When you describe a device as a "Shazam" or "eyedropper" for fonts, you raise certain expectations. I expect that I can point the device at type on a page, hit a "Capture" button, and see that exact font applied to my layout. At a minimum, I'd expect the software to tell me, "This is Garamond Bold," or even "this is ITC Garamond Bold" as opposed to Adobe Garamond or Monotype Garamond.

That would be amazing. But by her own admission, O'Leary's device currently works with only seven typefaces.

But it's just a prototype, the bloggers tell us. She's working to integrate it with a larger database!

What the Font

Well, fine. Let's see how it works with a database of 341,830 fonts. That's the current count for WhatFontIs.com, one of several websites that already provide font-matching services. Others include Matcherator from FontSpring and WhatTheFont from Monotype's MyFonts.com.

Yes, it turns out that the ability to identify a font from a scanned image is nothing new. These services operate in the same general way—you upload an image that contains type, and server-based software analyzes the shapes and attempts to find a match.

When you've used these services—as well as the new Match Font feature in Photoshop—you learn to lower your expectations. For the most part, they do a good job of identifying popular typefaces. But often, especially with lesser-known fonts, you get a list of suggestions that only loosely resemble the type you want to match.

Matcherator

All of these services are tied to e-commerce sites that try to sell you fonts. If O'Leary wants access to a large font database, she would presumably have to work with one of these vendors.

WhatTheFont is also available as an iPhone app, so even the ability to capture the image with a handheld device is not new. (Granted, it's not the most elegant app I've used—it's basically an app-based version of the website.)

Unanswered Questions

Many commenters on these blog posts raised a reasonable question: Why not build the font- and color-capturing capabilities into an app? (Adobe offers a color-capture feature in Capture CC, and I've speculated about the possibility of an app based on the new Match Font feature in Photoshop.)

After reading the Wired article, I sent O'Leary an email identifying myself as a U.S.-based journalist. I asked about her decision to put the features into a hardware device instead of an app. And I asked if she thought she could improve on the font-matching capabilities in the existing services. So far, I haven't received a response.

Font App

Maybe a dedicated device can do a better job than an app. Maybe it would add a measure of convenience compared with the need to upload an image to a website. But saving a few steps from an existing process is a far cry from "OMG! This is revolutionary!"

I don't want to be too critical of O'Leary. I'm sure it took a lot of ingenuity and hard work to build a device like this. No, this is about bloggers who seem to be more interested in generating clicks than taking a critical look at the technology. They're describing Spector in terms that seem too good to be true, but it's clear that none of them actually looked at or tested the device.

I've been a tech journalist for a long time, and I've seen many "breakthrough" technologies fall flat on their faces once they were exposed to actual users. If it's reasonably priced, maybe Spector turns out to be modestly useful. But a "Shazam" or "eyedropper" for fonts, when long-established developers have fallen short of that Holy Grail? I'll have to see some hard evidence before I'm ready to believe that or proclaim it to my readers.

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