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This App Uses Machine Learning To Identify Esoteric Fonts

The app uses a deep learning algorithm trained on 33 million images to spot over 100,000 fonts.

It’s a familiar problem for any designer: You’re walking down the street when you spot a glorious typeface in the wild–something that would be perfect for the project you’ve been working on. But you have no idea what the font’s name is.

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Enter WhatTheFont, an app created by the typography company Monotype. The app originally launched in 2009, but has been updated to use machine learning to identify fonts in any picture you upload or take through the app. That means it can do a lot more than the original app’s font identifier, which Monotype’s director of research and development Sampo Kaasila says used “brute force” to match an image to one of 133,000 fonts. Now, the app uses a deep learning algorithm trained on 250 images per font–a total of 33 million images.

Now, the app is far better and faster at identifying connected, cursive fonts and finding multiple fonts in a single image. Kaasila says its accuracy is over 90% and errors are most common when the picture is poor quality or there’s a small set of characters. As more people use the algorithm, the better it will get.

[Photo: Monotype]
Here’s how it works. First, you take a photo of a font you’d like to learn more about. Then, the app automatically finds the text in the image. You can shift the crop box around the text and choose which particular font you want to find. Then, you press the next arrow, and the app presents you with 20 options of fonts that it finds similar.

If the font is 1 of 133,000 fonts in the app’s library, it will likely show up–but there’s no guarantee. I tested out several fonts by taking pictures of my computer, and the correct font was usually in the top two or three choices. The program didn’t do a very good job of identifying the font’s weight. And it didn’t recognize one font, Snell Roundhand, at all, instead offering 20 flowery scripts that vaguely resembled it.

[Photo: Monotype]
Even if it does get the font correct among the first few options, the app still offers a total of 20 fonts that are similar. Each font is identified by name, weight, and designer, but that’s the only information provided–this is definitely not a tool to help you decide which font you’ll ultimately want to use. If you select one of the fonts, the app lets you buy it, or click a “share it” button to save it to your notes.

This is the mobile version of a service Monotype has offered for a while on desktop–but now, instead of taking pictures of fonts and finding out more about them later, you can find the next perfect font for your project on the go.

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WhatTheFont is free and available on Android and iOS.

About the author

Katharine Schwab is a contributing writer at Co.Design based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture.

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