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PhotoMath – Smart camera calculator (photomath.net)
218 points by nreece on Oct 22, 2014 | hide | past | web | favorite | 54 comments

They pitched at TechCrunch Disrupt yesterday. Here's the video http://techcrunch.com/2014/10/20/microblink-launches-photoma...

Great idea, really surprised Wolfram alpha hasn't done some OCR problem solving. Any ideas what solver is powered by and how good it is (or any other open source ones out there)? I only know of SymPy.

What is the use case for this? It's hard for me to see anything other than K-12 math homework (or early college, in some cases). Even graphing calculators have broader applicability than that, and that's saying something.

I'm tempted to go one step further and say that it's hard to see it as much more than a "do my homework for me" app, but I know that's too harsh. Some wise users might turn to it only to check their answers, or to get a hint about the next step if they're stuck. But as a professor, I've seen just how easy it can be for even strong students to come to over-rely on "Help, I'm stuck!" opportunities if they're available, and that doesn't assist with learning. (In one memorable case, that opportunity was me in my office, and I eventually had to limit my supply of helpful hints.)

I will admit, as a once ardent anti-math student, I appreciate how frustrating it is to sit down, stare at a problem for 10 minutes and advance no where through feeble attempts.

When I began taking Calc 2 (as an adult who's worked and gone back to school), I found wolfram alpha's integral solver to be INCREDIBLY helpful for working through practice problems (to your point, I was using it as a check/next step assistance). I ended up with an A in that class because of Wolfram's ability to help me work through a problem regardless of the hour, or day.

I think if this (or a similar app) helps students work through problems and recognize errors they're making, it can absolutely be beneficial. I would concede with respect to the homework solver aspect, but hope that teachers could some how incorporate this into their classes, something along the lines of an account management system that shows the teachers which students are requesting which equation.

It seems like a failure of the course/teacher if you are asked to solve a problem in which you can't identify the requisite steps and make progress?

In my mind the reason for problems is to practice the techniques taught until you can: a) avoid common pitfalls b) recognise common patterns c) minimise calculation errors with sense checks

However, when this problem set is marked and impacts your results obviously the incentives change from learning by doing to getting 100%. Once you have an app like this for "checking", it takes decent appreciation of the long term outcomes to avoid using it for "solving" and then going off to play some Frog Fractions.

Some problems have several steps or techniques that need to be applied. It's not always obvious which way to go at first. Near the end of a course, or in higher-level courses, there could be hundreds of possible "next steps" that you've learned. Recognizing common patterns doesn't help in uncommon cases.

Sure, but that doesn't mean a tool to help when the course/teacher isn't fantastic isn't a good thing. It's an easy thing to abuse, though, and I think self restraint with regards to just googling answers is becoming an important study skill.


Applications like this are BEST used when utilized as yet another "tool" in the proverbial toolbox, and NOT as an endgame(ie: not a problem solver).

I too used WA to great benefit when taking the full calc series at my university and I credit it to helping me achieve straight A+'s in the series(the ONLY A+'s I EVER received in Uni). Yes, I studied my butt off too, and looked at outside work to learn the material, but WA helped ensure I was on the right track, or at least gave me "hints" as to what I was doing wrong. I never once used it as a solution, merely a calibration of my methods.

So yes, I think there are definite places for tools like these in the classroom, as much as it may seem like they are "cheats".

this was one of the coolest things i've seen recently. Lots of interesting stuff going on in the OCR space. A buddy of mine has an app that translates chinese and japanese to english in realtime using the camera. http://www.waygoapp.com/

I am at once both amazed and saddened. Mastering fraction reduction and later simple algebra when I was a kid was one of the most empowering experiences of my life. This is like having an app run a marathon for me - it's easier, but I'm not changed through the work.

I mean, isn't it basically a homework aid? While it's definitely cheaty, I can understand why it would appeal to kids who just want to get their homework done fast, or people who are stuck on exercises and want a hint.

The value of doing homework isn't measured in how fast you finish it:

> This is like having an app run a marathon for me - it's easier, but I'm not changed through the work.

That analogy is misleading, because you don't have to run a marathon to get a high school diploma.

I'm not advocating that students use this to cheat on their homework. I'm just pointing out that most people reading an algebra textbook aren't in there for self-improvement. They just want a good grade.

I think the impressiveness of what these guys made is the best argument for what a mistake that is. The effective 0% unemployment rate of engineers in SV shows what you get when you're not willing to be "bad at math." I know you're not advocating for that attitude, it just drives me nuts.

Seeing this reminds me how frustrating searching in the app store is. I saw this story on my computer, and picked up my iPad and went to the app store to download it. Searching for "photo math" yields a few hundred goofy photo editing apps [1]. Searching by the correct name "photomath" yields 0 results. I ended up going to their website to get the link before figuring out that my default search is for iPad compatible apps only, and that this won't show up unless I search with iPhone Only selected.

[1] fat face and look like a zombie are the most popular, but I was most impressed with Abs Booth

edit: the developer should also note that searching by name does not work unless you add the app name as a keyword. I have submitted bug reports for both issues (18735078 and 18735109)

Man, I wish I had this (and cellphones) in high school. Would have made cheating so much easier!

When I was at school I had one of these: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Psion_Series_3

And got in trouble for writing programs in OPL to solve math problems.

I reckon I deserved extra credit for initiative. The experience of learning to program has certainly turned out to be ultimately more useful than learning to do math without a calculator.

(Not that I think that learning to do math without a calculator is useless, mind you.)

OPL: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open_Programming_Language

Wrote a very simple genetic algorithm engine in OPL... my fitness function was just to optimize toward a specific 32-bit pattern. But I got familiar with the technique, along with quite a few other explorations.

Then I dropped it on a steel deck, broke a hinge and the power lines from the battery case. Never have pulled it apart to rebuild, but it's in my closet still, 15 years later :)

Haha, I had the exact same experience. Although I'm not sure the dice cricket game I also wrote in maths class counted :)

Other than that, what's the use? I'm struggling to think of any other time in my life where I have seen nicely typeset equations ending in "= ?"...

cool idea, but the reddit thread appears to be populated with complaints that it's barely functional

I tried it out. Barely functional is pretty accurate unfortunately :(

I was using it on screens though as opposed to paper.

Wolfram|Alpha for iOS suports image input from camera[1] and has a TextRecognize function[2]. Has anybody tested it?

[1] http://blog.wolframalpha.com/2012/03/14/wolframalpha-app-for...

[2] http://reference.wolfram.com/language/ref/TextRecognize.html

`TextRecognize` is clearly not for equations.

A colleague at my office gave it a test drive.

* http://youtu.be/jDbTKgWoufw

Results: As of now, it can only solve some linear equations. It did successfully solve one quadratic but it couldn't decide if the variable was r or e (the variable was x). It was largely unable to solve handwritten problems, even simple arithmetic.

note: This is a copy/paste of a comment I left on reddit /r/math and /r/windowsphone.

I don't know why you'd expect it to solve hand-written problems. Handwriting recognition of text is barely solved, let alone maths.

Truthfully I did not know what to expect with regards to hand written problems. Out of curiosity, I wrote my very neatest and gave it a try and it solved one of them.

There are some startup in China providing similar apps, basically they are using deep learning to search problem photo in a problem set(middle school, high school problem sets and exams). Like this one: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.wenba.bang...

I'd be more interested if it could provide the LaTeX code for the scanned equation. Then you could write equations by hand and simply scan them in.

I'm halfway through a thesis, so it's too late for me, but others could have a notorious learning curve eased somewhat.

While it's not as full as OCR, there's an app called DeTeXify that will do almost exactly what you describe.

Android app link here: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=coolcherrytree...

The stuff we do under-the-hood would make this relatively simple to implement. We already have a custom, intermediate, math expression language which we use to hold scanned data. One would only need to write a converter from this language to latex instead of the visual typesetting that we display on-screen

I'm betting that interpreting your math handwriting would be quite a bit harder than interpreting printed text. That said, I'd love to have that feature, too.

This reminds me of http://webdemo.myscript.com/#/demo/equation which recognizes handwritten equations. Also has an option to send to wolfram alpha to solve!

I have yet to see an app support trigonometry. Is recognizing graphs too hard?

That would be a fun project. If you can digitize the graph reliably, you can then take the discrete Fourier transform of the data, apply some denoising/thresholding to extract the main components. This would tell you if you're looking at sin(x), cos(x), cos^2(x), etc. If you have a training set, you could maybe start picking out more complex functions like abs(x), 1/x, etc.

I've been working on it in my spare time for 18 months and can do some rudimentary stuff. Graphing was the easy part. ;) I do a lot of material layout at work and need to maximize how many parts of a specific shape can fit on a single sheet of raw material. The hard part is coding the math. I'm using robust statistics/regression, DFT's, SVM's, PCA, nesting and clustering which are much harder to code robustly than anything else I've run into. The other hard part is selecting the correct algorithms for the correct problems. So far my intuition is pretty bad. The only saving grace is that the amount of available info about these problems has literally exploded in the last few years.

I am referring to problems like this


I don't think it's easy.

All I can think of is that xkcd: http://xkcd.com/1425/

Doesn't this defeat the purpose of the exercises?

It depends how you use it, I think. Math in school is about learning and solving problems. But, many textbooks don't have answers. So how could you learn, if you don't know if you have success solving problems? I think this is great, but it will get abused.

I think it fundamentally changes how the lessons are being taught.

Sure, you'll need to spend some time to understand the fundamentals of solving the problem, but afterwards (and just like in real life) you'd punch the problems into the computer and solve them.

This leaves the field open to expand the lesson into more in-depth topics, rather than getting bogged down on the simple math.

Yes, it does.

No, it doesn't. It all depends on how you use it. Many people like to verify that they have done correctly before moving on to the next problem. Often no solution is given, which makes people unsure and nervous about continuing. And if you're stuck this can show you the steps and you can learn something.

This is a GREAT idea.

Reminded me of "The Lenwoloppali Differential Equation Scanner" from The Big Bang Theory


I'm more surprised, that nobody did this earlier. The episode was around for a few years.

I'm pretty sure this app doesn't solve differential equations ...

Did you mean the Surprisingly Helpful Equation Link Differential Optimized Numerator?

Yeah, if people were not already lame enough to try to understand maths in a right way.

btw, suite of similar apps will follow in chemistry and physics now

It is frustrating - why is it free? Please, do not dump the market...

You're fighting a losing battle, getting exposure is valuable for a startup and free is often a good route to get initial users.

I think this will produce lazier students. This will encourage student to expect instant answers to math problems rather than encourage them to learn to seek answers by understanding the questions, equations and formula.

This is true of all inventions.

When I was learning math we had to draw out equations in sand, with roman numerals. Digits make students lazy. Instead of actually visualizing the numbers geometrically, all they need to do is play around with numbers.

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