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Innovation By Design

From The Makers Of Paper, A Platform For An Internet You Can Touch

Mix lets you sketch on other people's sketches, teasing an Internet in which users can reach through screens and manipulate media at will.

FiftyThree, maker of the buzzy iPad drawing app Paper, has released a new product that lets you draw in a community sketchbook, riffing on the templates of others.

When FiftyThree released the sketching app Paper, the iPad was still seen as a device for " content consumption"—a window that allowed you buy media but not create it. Paper bucked that idea. It showed us that anyone could draw beautifully on the iPad. And it was downloaded 8 million times as of last year. Now, companies like Adobe are rethinking their entire app suite around how users can create content on a tablet.

I suspect FiftyThree’s latest product, Mix, will be equally influential, if not even more important than Paper’s original launch. Because Mix teases an even larger, potentially more disruptive idea—an Internet that allows you to reach through a screen and manipulate multimedia at will. Lurking inside Mix is an Internet that you can touch.

Mix is a social drawing platform, a place where you can post a sketch and watch dozens of others riff on that sketch. And it’s actually built right inside of Paper. Swipe up, and you go from your private notebooks to the public drawing community. "We wanted to encourage a world where people could build off each other’s ideas," explains Fiftythree CEO Georg Petschnigg.

Mix isn’t a synchronous drawing app that enables 10 people to sketch on the same virtual canvas at the same time. It’s more like a mass photocopier. The first person might draw a circle. The second person might make that circle into a basketball. A third person might draw a face on that circle instead. And then a fourth person might put hair on the face. Every sketch is the branch on a tree of visual riffing. And anyone on Mix might be part of that tree. It's open to everyone.

That might sound like a lot to juggle. But it isn’t, really, because Mix’s interface is nice and simple: You look at an image you like. You tap it and it zooms in full screen. You can draw on it. And if you like your drawing, you can publish it with another tap. Remixing can take seconds or hours, but the speed is fully dependent on you rather than UI bureaucracy.

Annotation is automatic. Mix places an "inspired by" credit at the bottom of your revised sketch pointing to its source—what’s akin to a "via" or "hat tip" in the blogging world. Petschnigg lamented to me that "attribution online is totally broken," and often dependent on squeezing links or RTs into the 140 characters of Twitter. It also hinges on the ethics of the creator. Mix’s annotation system is the result of social networking merging with a creative app. You aren’t creating your latest supercut in Final Cut Pro before uploading it to YouTube. You’re painting right inside the stream of creative consciousness.

One catch is that Mix doesn't really let you take ideas beyond the ideation step. It's a platform intended for brainstorming rather than polished execution. So you might sketch a design for your next house on Mix, but you'll have to find someone somewhere else to blueprint it out. Or you might draw an album cover on Mix, but you'd still need to juggle apps like Photoshop or Illustrator to ever take it to print. Another catch, Petschnigg admits, is that Mix's launch UI couldn't scale to millions of users. The annotation system would still work, but the current structure would become a deluge of sketches that you could never possibly follow. In that regard, Mix probably sits somewhere between a very impressive demo and a truly mass-market-ready product.

Even still, Mix is more than a quick drawing app. It's more than a neat social network, too. It’s a taste of the next wave of the Internet, an Internet that is less about merely visiting a webpage, streaming a movie, or commenting on an article than it is reaching through our screens to manipulate media at will. Modern publishing platforms are playing with this vision, like The Atlantic's Quartz, which explored user-annotated articles, or Gawker Media's Kinja, which allows readers to annotate pictures, too.

Mix goes steps beyond that. Without friction in its user interface (beyond downloading the Paper app), it turns everything that users draw into its own, instantly published, reference-able, and editable piece of media—no Wordpress blog or HTML coding required. And it teases a digital future where we can build on, critique, appreciate, reimagine, and generally interact with everything in a tangible fashion. Soon, we’ll view these RTs and Like buttons as the Stone-Age grunts of a remedial web, one restricted by keyboards, web browsers, and our caged imaginations.

Mix is available for iPads today as a free update to Paper.

Learn more here.

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