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New service cleans up whiteboard pics with an email (snapclean.me)
107 points by codeslinger on June 28, 2010 | hide | past | web | favorite | 81 comments

I really like this trend of Posterous-inspired web apps that don't require setting up an account, just emailing into a public email address. It's what changed my mind from "eh, looks nice, might try it later when it's more robust" to "oh why not, let me email something in and see what happens".

And now the demo of your web app generates a mailing list of potential future customers along the way. Smart.

(in the FAQ)

  [Q:] It does funny stuff to my other pictures (not drawings).
  [A:] Yes, yes it does. :)
This could open the door to worlds of fun with people who try to push the boundaries... like... I dunno, send back a picture of a garden gnome in a bikini if there's no solid background.

Really great idea, but most advanced whiteboard cleanup software includes perspective correction and things like that.. As far as I can tell this just is a color-scale modifier and sharpener.

However the idea behind the service, whiteboard cleanup via email, is pretty sound. I would love to have this with features that allow me to send the pic along with list of 'end product' recipients.

Need some https secured site as well for sensitive whiteboard snaps.

Thanks, and yes, the mvp was basic pic cleanup via email. Things like user accounts and on-line storage are on the plan.

As far as forwarding, how would you like that to work? Configure on the site? Put them in the Subject line? To keep down on spam I'd have to require an account for that kind of feature.

Thanks for trying it out.


Both :) I'd love the option to pass configuration through the subject or message body, but configuring defaults in an account would save typing them in every time. Options like automatic crop, deskew, and perspective correction would be essential.

I'm not sure what libs you're using for image processing, but OpenCV has a lot of this type of functionality.


Yeah this seems like a great phase one offering. I'd love to see the features you describe plus maybe some line cleanup (make boxes into boxes), maybe OCR (with PDF return type), etc...

or returning a Visio document back to me would be a complete win

Thereby putting Visio out of business, except as a reader. Definitely a win! Also, Microsoft would probably pay big-$$$ just to bury something like that (possibly putting it into use later in a web app).

Suggestion: send email/tweet to @names in the board w/ OCR...

Oh, I like that idea...need to look into OCR.


I don't want to be a downer, but the last time I looked into OCR it was a real bucket of hurt, and that was on non-hand-drawn images (checking if text rendering worked).

Something less human-readable might be easier to handle (e.g. print out something analogous to a bar code and stick that anywhere on the whiteboard). Tie that bar code to a list of recipients and you're set.

This is a great idea. I uploaded a test photo and the results were very good.

The only observable problem was some image artifacting where the original showed reflections of overhead fluorescent lights.

Here is my before and after for comparison:

Before: http://i.imgur.com/YjWqB.jpg After: http://i.imgur.com/Bi7pS.jpg

The links you posted don't work for me. I get a 404.

Changed to imgur links; try now.

It worked pretty well, although it did produce some noise with my image. However that's probably to be expected with a service like this. Nevertheless, it made the picture much more readable.

Here are the before and after photos: http://imgur.com/wPgl8&G80Lz

I agree with some of the comments. The noise around the edge of the whiteboard can be distracting. OCR would be a nice touch if you can get it to work as well.

Another thing that could be useful is automatic cropping so that the picture contains more content and less empty space. Maybe have an option to divide the picture into individual photos if there's enough whitespace? That way you could have separate photos for separate diagrams.

Just tried it on an image where the whiteboard was poorly cropped -- lots of junk around the edges of the pic. The drawing itself was cleaned pretty well, but the extra stuff was distractingly multi-colored.

It would be nice if it could detect the edges of the whiteboard and crop. As Goosey mentioned, perspective correction would be nice as well.

Love the idea as an email service, and look forward to seeing what comes next.

Since it's targeted specifically to blackboard drawings/diagrams, maybe it would be possible to vectorize the output

My apologies to someone, a pic didn't make it back: mattp@a-bb.net had a permanent delivery failure. No idea how to contact them...hope they were here and see this.

that's me! forwarded an old whiteboard pic just to try it out, and didn't notice the reply-to was an old work address that apparently no longer exists. thanks for the heads up!

A friendly request: if anyone is willing to share their before / after I'd love to see them (including any suggestions / requests you have for tweaking), and I'd like to put them up as a gallery, with your permission of course.

Thanks for all of this great feedback!

It fails miserably on my chalkboard photo test (it doesn't claim to support chalkboard, but it seems like it should - it probably doesn't take much to determine the background is all dark and run the appropriate scripts)

Your 4 step instructions have doodle@, but the actual mailto: is for wb@. It's a minor thing, but you should be consistent.

Cool idea. I think you could run pretty far with a posterous style lazy signup and more options (like the dropbox idea, some storage, etc.) Maybe support group emails, so dev@ when sent from my email address returns a response to a certain 5 people.

Yeah, right now the algorithm subtracts out smooth areas, leaving sharply defined areas mostly alone. I could look into handling blackboard drawings if there is enough interest. Good point about the consistency with the email, I'll have to make them the same. Thanks for the feedback and the ideas, thanks!

My source (chalkboard) image wasn't great (dark, low contrast), but I got better results from the service by doing an "invert" before sending it on.

Awesome! Would you be willing to share a chalkboard pic? I don't have access to one...thanks for the invert tip!

You know this already, but I sent them to your email as in your HN profile.

I have no idea how important blackboard is - probably less so for the business world, but plenty of students use/encounter them.

If it's easy to work out a algorithm that cleans up the blackboard but harder to work out detecting the blackboard, your idea of two email addresses (doodle/wb@, and blackboard/bb@) would probably be a good solution.

It would be neat to consider other types of images you could "clean up" or alter for people - sort of like a Posterous-meets-Photoshop app. An obvious example that comes to mind would be to remove red eye from pictures. I know a lot of photo editing apps can do this already, but just think how much easier it would be for most people to just send an email and get a cleaned up version back. Boom, done.

Don't know how feasible this is, and you've got a lot of room to grow in your current segment already, but would be neat to see where else this could be applied to!

Thanks for the suggestions. I had thought of a couple of things: simple 90/-90 rotations, removing red eye was one of them - I have to figure out an automated way of doing that. Thanks for checking it out!

Tried it out. We actually have these funky glass "whiteboards" and it still came out pretty well. A slightly higher resolution output would be nice. Handwriting is hard to read without zooming in a couple of times.

Other than that, I agree with some of the suggestions below. Cleaning up the display is probably 90% of what I want, so this is great. One note- I entered some text in the subject line; it would be nice if this got preserved somewhere to make searching my email easier.

Glad to know it worked on glass whiteboards - would you be willing to share a pic? I like the idea of preserving the subject line - make it easier to organize the photos when they come back (my camera doesn't let me give them meaningful names). Great idea! Thanks for trying it out.

I know it's just a GIMP script but I was pretty impressed at how well the returned image was.

My only advice is to make the instructions clearer. It's quite a simple idea "send a whiteboard photo to XYZ, get a clean version back" but I had to go to a second page, scroll down quite a bit, then click a few other pages to find out exactly what happens when I send a photo. I might be dimmer than the average customer though.

Ahh... that's the nice thing.

Customers don't need to know how easy (or hard) something is... some classmates of mine are now enjoying a trip to South Africa (to see the World Cup alongside head coach Óscar Tabárez) thanks to some clever marketing... they made a video indexing software (the indexing is totally manual) and marketed it as a solution for soccer trainers.

The actual code was much easier than our own project, but it was visually nice and it was brilliantly marketed. I'm probably going to blog about this if some of you are interested :)

Nice and simple. Good job.

You probably know this, there's http://www.scanr.com/ that tackles a similar problem.

I wasn't aware of that, thanks for the link! Looks like it's more advanced than what I'm doing at the moment...



Yes, scanR may be more sophisticated in their image processing technology, but their system is just not as easy to use (the last time I checked it out).

My suggestion to you is to keep running with your idea of making your service dead simple to use. I love the idea of just sending it to an email address -- reminds me of posterous, but for image processing.

Yes, like Posterous has shown, simple can win you converts even if it's lacking functionality.

It would be nice to treat the response as a reply (preserve subject, etc.) so that Gmail can do threading properly.

Why does it resale the image?

I sent a 640x411 image and got back a 800x514

Also an area of solid black turned into cyan and magenta. (The image I tried was http://i42.tinypic.com/169lppj.jpg - and yes I know it's not a whiteboard, but it looks like one.)

Sorry, I'm rescaling the image right now to roughly 800x600 to keep down on the memory usage of the process. Based on what I'm seeing today I think I can raise the maximum picture size and not rescale if it's within that size. Thanks for giving it a try.

The last time I did something like this, I made a point to never scale upwards to the target size.

The email feature is great though a file uploader on the main page wouldn't be missed. ;)

Thanks for the suggestion. That is definitely doable, and added to the backlog. Thanks for checking it out!

This is a great idea!

It would be interesting to see this combined with a project management system. I imagine being able to snap your whiteboard, have the image cleaned, and placed right onto a project wiki, in one move (similar to Posterous, perhaps).

Thanks! That's an interesting idea - I know some wikis (like Confluence) can receive emails...I'll put that onto the list.

Need more description on the first page. Maybe the 4 easy steps from the other page?

I had it like that at one point and thought it required too much scrolling to see the flow...it was also suggested that I make the '4 simple instructions' into a pretty big button saying 'Get Started Now'.

Thanks for the feedback.

Without complicating the service at all, I would love to see Dropbox integration. We use Dropbox for all of our shared files and being able to go from: Whiteboard->Email to Service->Dropbox immediately would be amazing.

Thank you for the idea, I know dropbox has an api. Added to the list, thanks!

potentially off-topic, but i'm SO glad that the title of this post wasn't "Check out our new start-up: cleaning up whiteboard pics via email!!!" the pitch is honest and straight-forward, and not overselling. excellent work

Here's a before and after test, looks like it needs some tuning for images that are not as low contrast


p.s. that's a springpad link, awesome to just share those stuff from your phone

Thank you for the example. Looks like something could be tweaked to do better on that kind of picture. Would you be willing to let me use that as an example for trying to improve the algorithm? Thanks again for trying the service.

by all means, use it

Thanks, and I hate to be a bother, but would you mind sending me an email as such? kyle@snapclean.com Thanks!

this is awesome! i was brainstorming about how to do something like this a few weeks ago when one of my fellow students brogth his digital slr in instead of taking notes..

we started as a group of about 20 or so comp sci students, taking joint notes in google wave for 2 semesters now.. it works great except if there are alot of diagrams.. and ascii diagrams just take too long and dont do the original justice. so we started adding pictures..

i am excited to have a tool to clean them up now =)

ps anyone else doing this joint notes thing? if not you should try it.. it works wonders for studying for tests

I can't use this without knowing how long you'll store whatever I send you.

I'll have to add that to the terms and the faq - I'm using google apps to handle the email. The app issues a delete immediately after processing. Right now I'm clearing out the trash folder (edit: sorry the sent folder) in the google account about every day or so.

What kind of assurances would you like? If I implement accounts, would you be comfortable with storage? Would you want to be able to choose on a per-picture basis?

Thanks for taking a look.


Personally, I'd prefer an option to have it delete immediately after it's been processed, even if that's not the default.

Lots of idea's get thrown up on whiteboards where I work, but the boss man is a little paranoid. In order to become a regular user I would need to know that nothing I email over is being kept.

I understand the insecurities of email in general, but there's a difference between available for the duration of the email transmission and available for days after the email has been sent.

Thanks for being responsive.

I once worked in the information security group at a large insurance company, and they prohibited their employees from using, e.g., AltaVista Babelfish, lest they mistakenly release confidential information via the translation tool. Instead, they wanted employees to use a local desktop-based translation tool.

For all of the security measures that can be taken with sending data to web applications, "never sending it at all" is very secure indeed, and in some arenas, the inconvenience may be worth it.

Just curious - do you know if they'd buy a desktop version of something like this? If they did previously? Thanks for sharing about these kinds of users.

I no longer work with them, so I can only surmise. I never saw anyone using a tool like this, but it's a big company with many offices, and individual groups may well have bought their own local tools that weren't provided at the enterprise level. Would they buy a desktop version? If employees found it useful, I don't see why not.

They almost certainly would not use the web version, unless they could run it 100% internally on their intranet.

In my experience, most companies that have rigid security/compliance policies against using simple web services like babelfish, google translate, etc. also have rigid purchasing departments that make it almost impossible to sell them a simple, inexpensive desktop app. They only buy "enterprise solutions" from "approved vendors". Now admittedly there can be a lot of money selling those "enterprise soutions", but it's hardly a low barrier to entry game. IMHO unless the OP wants to get into the business of selling labyrinthian "enterprise" software, he should probably just ignore companies who have compliance policies that would prevent them using simple online services.

Do you have any thoughts on a future revenue model? Maybe build out some kind of add-on "pro" features?

Aside from selling corporate whiteboard-secrets? (I kid, I kid...)

Will definitely _not_ be doing that, but I should add reassurance to the faq/terms/privacy so people know what's what.

Indeed, I really was kidding, so no offense meant. I am an info-sec professional by trade, so I'm naturally a bit cynical and paranoid when it comes to offloading certain things to third parties. It's good to know you have a privacy policy, though. It wouldn't hurt if you explain your data retention and destruction policy, though. If you'd like some ideas from me on ways to improve your handling of ephemeral data, let me know. Contact info in my HN profile.

Yes. Your current simple privacy policy ("We will not share your email address with anyone.") is nice, but it doesn't address the privacy of users' content (i.e. the images they send you).

I don't doubt that you intend to do the right thing, but still, I was honestly a bit wigged out to not see any mention of the privacy of my data in the privacy policy.

Policy updated (ianal though), does it work for you?

Just thought I'd mention that personally I wouldn't mind an ad being placed in the return mail. Though I'm sure the privacy advocates would be against it, using OCR to determine keywords and targeting the ads would be beneficial for you as well as the consumer.

Thanks, I appreciate hearing that. I had thought of putting an ad in the email, or even adding one to the bottom of the image itself - though I felt like that would be too intrusive and decided against it (adding to the image itself). Thanks for the feedback.

Unless you could find a solid impression based advertising provider or are willing to spend the time finding advertisers I wouldn't add anything to the image itself except (maybe) the URL to your homepage. For the email bit you'd still have to be careful with the TOS that most pay-per-click ad agencies have regarding email.

That is a goal, what kind of things would you look for? What would be worth paying for? Corp/multi user accounts?

Thanks for checking it out!

I'm surprised Evernote doesn't handle this - or does it? Maybe they'd like to buy the technology.

Evernote does parse the text out of photos of my home whiteboard.

but does it "enhance" the photo?

Are you planning on making a simple API or is email to be considered as the API?

I hadn't considered an API - what do you have in mind? An HTTP post & response? What would you use it for? I just hadn't thought of this since the graphics libraries and routines are readily available. An API seems to cut out any possible ad opportunities - is an api something you'd be willing to pay to use? Thanks for the idea.

An HTTP post & response could be an option. It would just open the possibility for other services to integrate with yours, there making it more flexible and open to a larger audience. A freemium approach could then be a possibility (where one starts paying after a certain amount of daily API usage)

Is it actually just imagemagick and a procmail script?

PS: If you've got one of those old fashioned iPhings, check out JotNot which does this sort of thing on the phone.

Could it be abused by spammers?

Getting any traction yet?

Alternative: Learn to use Inkscape.

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