Typefacial Recognition at H&FJ Labs

Typeface: Ideal Sans

We’re generally content to control font outlines by pushing points around on a screen, but an intuitive interface for managing the entire gestalt of a type family remains elusive. Andy Clymer at H&FJ tends to develop fonts and tools together (one always seems to be the excuse to create the other), and this is his latest exploration: using facial recognition to control the basic parameters of a font’s design.

Behold Andy modeling his latest creation, which employs Kyle McDonald’s FaceOSC library, GlyphMath from RoboFab, and Tal Leming’s Vanilla to mutate the geometries behind our Ideal Sans typeface in realtime. I’m intrigued by the potential to control local and global qualities of a typeface at the same time: fingers and mouse to design the details, faces and cameras to determine their position in a whole realm of design possibilities. I wonder about the possibilities of a facial feedback loop, in which one’s expression of wonder and delight could instantly undo a moment of evanescent beauty. And then there are the possibilities of environmental pathogens affecting letterforms: what might too much caffeine, air conditioning, or ragweed pollen do to a typeface? Listening to Louis C.K.? Too many whiskey sours? —JH

Now Hiring: Web Developer & Programmer

So you love HTML5. You’re psyched that the IE9 beta looks so promising, because you’ve got enough IE6 war stories, though personally you’re rocking the latest Firefox nightly. Sometimes you can’t remember what life was like before jQuery, but in a pinch you’re prepared to roll your own library. (Which, let’s face it, makes you feel a little like MacGyver, and you like working with folks who notice.) And you’ve spent a lot of time noodling with @font-face. A lot. Is this you? Come and work among kindred spirits: H&FJ is looking for a full-time front-end developer to make a significant contribution to the ever-evolving typography.com. Position filled!

You can feel when things are built correctly, and can smell a kludge at fifty paces. You know how to run a test and assess its results, and how to shepherd your source-controlled code all the way from development to release. You’re someone who likes to reduce a problem down to a set of tasks, and you’re intimately familiar with the sense of accomplishment that comes from seeing all the parts come together. You write modular code because you hate doing the same thing twice, but you’re always up for doing something five different ways just to be sure. And your middle name is LAMP. If this is you, come join us as a full-time web programmer at Hoefler & Frere-Jones. Position filled!

The Tablet Magazine

Typefaces: Vitesse, Forza, Tungsten, and Gotham Rounded

Wired gets it. Today they’re going public with the prototype they shared with us a few weeks ago, and if you’re like me, your reaction will be an instantaneous “neat!” followed immediately by “well, isn’t it obvious it was supposed to work this way?” When something creates and fulfills expectations at the same time, you know you’ve got it right. —JH

Uptown App, for iPhones

Typefaces: Gotham, Mercury Text, Giant

Manhattan’s urban grid is a vaunted model of simplicity, a rectilinear plan of numbered streets intersecting numbered avenues. Never mind that West 4th Street crosses West 10th, that those walking from Fifth Avenue to Third Avenue will seldom encounter Fourth Avenue, and that “North” in the New York sense differs from conventional “North” to the tune of 29°. It’s this kind of accuracy, transparency and accountability that makes New York the perfect home for Wall Street.

A fixture of the corner of Broadway and Houston, where H&FJ makes its home, is a tourist population forever asking that question of the ages, “which way is uptown?” I can’t entirely blame them: in the math of the NYC grid, Houston is 0th Street, and local signs wickedly conceal the real names of avenues below fake labels that are designed specifically to ensnare tourists. (Watch the meter when you ask a taxi driver to take you anywhere on “Avenue of the Americas.”)

To the rescue comes our own Andy Clymer, whose joint interests in typography, programming, and human decency are combined in Uptown App, his new utility for the iPhone 3GS. Andy’s thoughtfully used some of our fonts on what’s actually a pretty handy app: because it uses the iPhone’s built-in magnetometer, it can give you a quick read on “uptown” in places where GPS signals and cellular networks are unavailable or slow to come online, like when stepping out of freezing cold subway stations. Compared to the inconvenience of frostbite, 99¢ is a genuine bargain. —JH

On the Death and 441-Year Life of the Pixel

The struggle to adequately render letterforms on a pixel grid is a familiar one, and an ancient one as well: this bitmap alphabet is from La Vera Perfettione del Disegno di varie sorte di ricami, an embroidery guide by Giovanni Ostaus published in 1567.

Renaissance ‘lace books’ have much to offer the modern digital designer, who also faces the challenge of portraying clear and replicable images in a constrained environment. Ostaus’s alphabet follows the cardinal rule of bitmaps, which is to always reckon the height of a capital letter on an odd number of pixels. (Try drawing a capital E on both a 5×5 grid and a 6×6, and you'll see.) Ostaus ignored the second rule, however, which is “leave space for descenders.”

I’d planned to introduce this item with a snappy headline that juxtaposed the old and the new — for your sixteenth-century Nintendo! — before reflecting on the pixel’s moribund existence. Pixels were the stuff of my first computer, which strained to show 137 of them in a square inch; my latest cellphone manages 32,562 in this same space, and has 65,000 colors to choose from, not eight. Its smooth anti-aliased type helps conceal the underlying matrix of pixels, which are nearly as invisible as the grains of silver halide on a piece of film. And its user interface reinforces this illusion using a trick borrowed from Hollywood: it keeps the type moving as much as possible.

Crisp cellphone screens aren’t the end of the story. There are already sharper displays on handheld remote controls and consumer-grade cameras, and monitors supporting the tremendous WQUXGA resolution of 3840×2400 are making their way from medical labs to living rooms. The pixel will never go away entirely, but its finite universe of digital watches and winking highway signs is contracting fast. It’s likely that the pixel’s final and most enduring role will be a shabby one, serving as an out-of-touch visual cliché to connote “the digital age.” —JH

Atoms & Aldus

Last week I mentioned the atomic pen, which scientists used to construct some awfully tiny letters one atom at a time. These are small letters indeed: measuring two nanometers in height, they’re about ¹₄₀₀₀₀ the thickness of a human hair, which surely gives their inventor sufficient authority to issue the casual throwdown that “it’s not possible to write any smaller than this.” But it is, of course, and the technique for doing so has been known to typefounders for more than five hundred years.

Continues…

A Typographic Challenge at 0.000007086614175 points

With what is delightfully being called “The Atomic Pen,” a team of researchers has created what are likely the world’s smallest letters. At left is an array of silicon atoms measuring two nanometers in height, or a little less than one hundred thousandth of a point.

Their technique, documented in today’s issue of Science magazine, makes use of an earlier discovery: that within a certain proximity, individual atoms from the silicon tip of an atomic force microscope will exchange with tin atoms on the surface of a semiconductor. “It’s not possible to write any smaller than this,” said researcher Masayuki Abe, which sounds like a challenge to me: I can already think of one way to make letters that are 8% smaller, using the team’s own technique. Can you? Answers next week. —JH

Obnoxious Character Recognition

Typeface: Mercury Display Bold Italic

At the heart of the game of cat-and-mouse played by bloggers and spammers is Captcha, purveyor of those staticky demands to enter the code exactly as shown above. Captcha is premised on the idea that brains are still better than machines at reading text, and that by forcing visitors to decipher a distorted piece of typography, the system can successfully distinguish between humans and robots. Of course, ongoing advancements in OCR technology have sparked a proportionate response in the impenetrability of Captcha, provoking an arms race whose chief casualty is the quality of life online. Next time you’re submitting to some real-world indignity — say, stripping down to your underwear at an airport security screening — try to look forward to the geniality of the virtual world, in which your own computer, from the comfort of your own home, will upbraid you for mistyping B89gqlIIl. And this after it went to all the trouble of obscuring the type using a three-dimensional distortion matrix, edge softening, gaussian interference, random occlusion, and your least favorite font. Puny human.

But happily — brilliantly! — Captcha’s inventor, Luis von Ahn, has inverted his own technology in the service of something grand. Von Ahn’s latest project, reCaptcha, replaces Captcha’s random gobbledygook with actual snippets of digitized books that computers have so far been unable to decipher. ReCaptcha uses each individual human intervention to improve the quality of digital literacy, a welcome relief for readers of this 1861 text that mentions modems (“modem art” is a common flub.) National Public Radio has the full story in this four-minute interview with the inventor himself. —JH

Unicode Poetry Slam

I feel certain that I’ve seen the logo for Fermata Festival on canvas totebags at the greenmarket, and that Fox Fraction is part of the Action 10 News Team. I’m equally convinced that Falling Family and Feathered February are Lifetime Original Movies, and that Fit Fita Five once opened for Afrika Bambaataa at the Mudd Club. Legendary turntablist Fricative Fritu was the driving force behind that act, before leaving to found Forward Fostering Four in 1979; signed to Furx Records, they were one of my favorite bands, along with Flexus Flight Flip and Facsimile Factor — who these days you can catch on Fly FM, home of a great morning drivetime show hosted by Fongman Foo

Novelists and MCs seeking inspiration are hereby directed to the Unicode Character Name Index, once a mere reference for cosmopolitan type designers, but now also a wellspring of found poetry (and a sure-fire way to blow an entire afternoon.) The above nonsense comes from adjacent entries on the F page, and other letters are no less fertile: doesn’t the M page make you yearn for the comeback of wrestling legend “Manacles” Manchu? —JH

Eric Siry adds: You neglected gangsta rap legend Fat Fatha, Thai-Senegalese throat singer Fthora Fu, and goth pioneers Functional Funeral — as well as the front man’s solo excursion into atonal noise rock, Fwa Fwaa Fwe Fwee.

Digital Analog

Writing about the glories of the nixie tube last December, I wondered aloud whether there’s anyone alive who has any affection for the ubiquitous LED display. Today I have my answer.

At RISD, BFA candidate Alvin Aronson has made the witty and beautiful “d/a clock,” in which seven-segment LED numbers are made manifest in Corian and wood. There’s something irresistable about digital artifacts come to life; watching this mesmerizing video of Aronson’s functioning clock, I’m reminded of the Game Music Concerts in which the Tokyo Philharmonic performed the themes from Super Mario Brothers and The Legend of Zelda. Like these, Aronson’s work is certainly mordant and entertaining, but it’s undeniably Art. —JH

The Evolution of Tech Logos

It took a visit to Finland in 1996 to realize that Nokia the cellphone company and Nokia the tire company were one and the same. Apparently these are merely the latest stops on a very long journey: Nokia was founded in 1865 as a wood-pulp mill, on a channel of rapids between two Finnish lakes, all of which goes to explain why the company’s original logo was this slightly alarmed salmon.

Neatorama is running a very entertaining look at the evolution of tech companies’ logos, which includes such well-known corkers as IBM’s grand typographic globe, and the short-lived Apple logo (that still makes me hear strains of “Carry On My Wayward Son.”) Less publicized, with good reason, is the original Canon logo — née Kwanon — which had all the worldly sophistication of a Charlie Chan movie. I’m gravely concerned for the Motorola logo, though: it’s memorable, distinctive, and typographically lovely; there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it, which means it’s probably next in line for the ax. (Xerox, I’m looking at you.) So I'm adding this one to the H&FJ Endangered Logo Watchlist, and offering 3:2 odds on a tragic redesign before the decade’s out. —JH.

Groovy Tech

Spy shots from Macworld! If only. This is one of Mark Richards’ spectacular photographs from Core Memory Project, his terrific survey of vintage computers. Mark’s sexy shot of the DEC PDP8/F explains all those day-glo set dressings in The Prisoner and The Time Tunnel, both worlds in which the higher the technology, the brighter the orange. Like the steampunks who reimagine today’s aluminum boxes as a festival of valves and gears and brass, when will we see the Modpunks, who will wickedly return us to a world of ochre cabinets, spooling tapes, and knobs that reassuringly click? (Or are they here already?) —JH

Typographic Gifts for Designers, Part 7

It’s hard to begrudge the polish and flexibility of a good pixel, but I’ll always have a soft spot for the earlier technologies. Mechanical and electronic displays with fixed images were somehow knowable in a way that screens are not, lending a palpable something to the things they inhabited. Has train travel been the same since the disappearance of the thip-thip-thipping flap display? Didn’t buses seem more resolute when emblazoned with hand-lettered roll signs, before today’s dot-matrix mayhem doomed them to speak in half-hearted and confounding abbreviations (or cheerily exclaim Out of Service as they malingered along?) Has the person yet walked the earth who has fond feelings for the starburst display of a credit card terminal?

One of my favorite outmoded technologies is the nixie tube. A tiny vacuum tube containing individual glowing cathodes for each digit, nixies were once a staple of high-end office calculators and measuring devices. Every few years, someone unearths a cache of virgin nixies and brings a nixie clock to market, which promptly sells out; this year’s offering is the Chronotronix V400 Nixie Tube Clock, an especially attractive contender in a polished cherry case, candidly offered in a limited edition. —JH

I, Calligrapher

Robots have long been useful in completing challenging or hazardous tasks: dismantling explosives, assembling automobiles, winning chess tournaments, etc. Robotlab in Karlsruhe, Germany, is training them for another purpose: calligraphy. Above, an articulated limb renders the Luther Bible in a primitive but serviceable version of the schwabacher script.

This innovation can’t come a moment to soon. For thousands of years, human calligraphers have subjected themselves to years of difficult study, exposing themselves to demanding physical conditions in the service of the written word. Even with the advent of non-toxic ink and cruelty-free vellum, calligraphy is not without its hazards: in addition to carpal tunnel syndrome and asthenopic eye strain, careless practicioners often suffer the socially sclerotic effects of Renaissance Faire attendance or absorptive Tolkienism. Most chillingly, mounting evidence suggests that even in industrialized nations, calligraphy is becoming a popular pastime among children.

Thankfully, technology is coming to our rescue. As these photos suggest, robot calligraphers may soon be employed to create that common household object, the hand-lettered bible in roll form. And overhead, without any fuss, the stars are going out. —JH

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