October 8, 2013

Making Mischief - The Magical App Unlike Anything You've Seen Before

Quietly sitting outside of a coffee shop in Cambridge, former Tufts' professor Sarah Frisken isn't who you'd expect to be the innovator behind one of the best drawing/design apps that's possibly ever been created. Frisken is one of the most unassuming founders I've ever met.

And yet, this week she is sitting down with Pixar, talking about Mischief, a drawing app that has to be seen to be believed. (It's by far one of the coolest products I've seen.)

When I asked her if there was anything like Mischief in the digital art/design world, Frisken said, "We think this is something completely different, there is really nothing out there like this."

Frisken worked at the Mitsubishi Electric Research Lab in Kendall Square for twelve years before going to teach computer graphics at Tufts. After three years at Tufts, Mitsubishi offered her the chance to license back the technology that eventually became Mischief and she jumped at the chance.

During her stint at MERL, Frisken, and fellow Mischief co-founder Ron Perry, had invented Adaptively Sampled Distance Fields (the tech behind Mischief) as well as the Saffron Type System for rendering fonts on the computer. The opportunity to license back the technology (Mitsubishi still owns the IP) happened at almost the same time that she was offered a chance to do some consulting for Disney.

Disney came calling to see if Frisken could help them solve a problem they were having with their animation department. "Around the time I was looking at re-licensing the technology, I was also approached by Disney Research," she said. "They wanted to move from a hand drawn animation pipeline to digital drawing. Nothing worked for their artists, [the existing digital drawing products] were too slow. The artists couldn't draw naturally."

Frisken consulted for Disney for four years, all the while trying to figure out the technology she invented could solve the animation problem. "I spent a lot of time working with the artists, listening to them, and trying to figure out what they really needed," she said. "We started building the app based on that."

A little over a year ago, Frisken and Perry delivered an early prototype of Mischief to Disney (who had added Marvel as a subsidiary in the meantime) that they could use internally. As Frisken said, "They are playing with it now." Although it hasn't been used to make a feature yet, don't be surprised if it happens soon.

As she told me, she was heading out to Pixar this week to meet with them and see how Mischief could benefit the computer animation giant.

Whatever happens with Disney and Pixar won't be as surprising as what happened when Frisken started offering Mischief to the public in June.

As she explained, "After we delivered the early version of Mischief to Disney, we spent the last year working on building a customizable product. In June we launched a trial and it just exploded overnight."

What makes Mischief so radically different than anything out there?

"The real magic beneath it is this new shape representation that is not pixels and not vectors," Frisken said. "Traditional drawing systems use one or the other. With pixels, you are limited by how many pixels there are and resolution issues. With vectors, you are drawing the outline of a shape, and the process can be tedious work."

Mischief takes the best components of both pixel and vector systems to make something that is closer to pen and paper drawing. But, as Frisken said, "It's better than paper because you can store it."

Frisken explained the technology behind the app, "It's a mathematical representation, but rather than the outline of a stroke, its the center-line of the stroke with some magic that adds texture and richness to that stroke. So its smaller than vectors and gives you the feel of pixel-based texture."

As it exists now, the product is designed for high-end artists (but could probably make a huge splash with UX/design and game design folks, I imagine). Users need a pressure sensitive pen tablet, like the Surface Pro, to use the app. (Currently, there are not pressure sensitive pen capabilities for iPads.)

That hasn't stopped digital artists from trialing and buying the $65 app in droves. As Frisken said, "We have enough customers that it is making it worthwhile." Great news especially since Mischief hasn't received any investment funding, yet.

As for the price, which is well below the average cost for design software (Adobe Design - $450), she explained, "We wanted to make this so reasonable that anyone could try it. I just want people to be able to use this."

It is quite possible that everyone will be using app in the near future. Whether it be app developers or the comic book designers at Marvel, the team behind the next innovative video game or the artists of the next Pixar film you see, Mischief could become the magical go-to tool for creative industries and artists.

Dennis Keohane is a staff writer for VentureFizz. You can follow Dennis on Twitter (@DBKeohane) by clicking here.