Interview with Chris Cheung of Autodesk

Benjamin Rabe

The iPad is fingerpainter’s new toy, and SketchBookPro for the iPad one of the most promising painting apps out there.
Chris Cheung, Product Manager of SketchBook at Autodesk was so kind to answer us some questions about the birth of the idea, future plans and hand-made iPad replicas. Hi Chris! So, the iPad is finally here, did you find any time to paint yet?

Chris Cheung: “Our team is based in Toronto, Canada, so we weren’t able to directly buy iPads when it launched in the U.S. on April 3. My wife knew how much I wanted one at the time so she actually surprised me on that Saturday, April 3, with a hand-made replica. Luckily, we did get a few iPads shipped to our office a couple of days after, but with all the activity, I’ve only had little time to try it out. It was wonderful to hold it for the first time and to fire up the App. There is something about the size that does give a new experience, different than using an iPhone or a desktop with a tablet device. So far, I’ve barely even gotten off the first page of brushes, creating raw sketches with the #3 pencil. I’m definitely going to get my own. According to Apple, I’ll have to wait until Mid-May to get it here in Canada.”

SketchBookPro for the iPad was ready for the iPad launch, and fingerpainters really seem to love it. As a software-developer-kinda-guy myself I know how important user-feedback is. Did you work with fingerpainters beforehand to improve the app?

“We have a wonderful set of artists and designers that we work with on all of the SketchBook products, so user-feedback is vital to us. With that said, however, the iPad development was a bit different. Like everyone else, we watched Steve Jobs announce the iPad at the end of January. We knew we wanted to support the launch with a new App, but there were challenges—one being that no one had the actual device yet. As a team, we were really lucky to have the experience with the iPhone App and the desktop versions to work from. We also spoke with several fingerpainters to talk about our ideas as we were developing. Though not the same as getting feedback about actual hands-on experience, it was valuable to affirm directions and help us make design decisions.”

Do you think the iPad app will have influence on the desktop app in any way?

“There is so much to be learned when you have a product family that spans from mobile devices all the way up to desktop computers. Some things are specific, like the way you hold a phone compared with using a tablet with your computer or, now, how you interact with an iPad. But in terms of what people expect with the quality and key features needed to be productive, those factors are now applicable for all platforms, and so the iPad App will have influence on both mobile and desktop, and vice versa.”

Burry&Cannot: on trees

Adobe jumped on late now with ‘Ideas’, but Autodesk was the first of the ‘big players’ to come out with a painting app on the iPhone/touch, SketchBookMobile. What causes Autodesk to create an app for the mobile platform?

“The users are the ones that made it happen. I still remember the first email that I received asking if we could port SketchBook Pro to the iPhone. Then, it felt like a crazy request, but this is the sort of thing that gets things into motion. Shortly after, we had a working prototype (just a single pencil on canvas), and you can see a couple of my first little doodles on it. This was a pivotal step because you can only go so far imagining what an App will be like on paper. Putting down that very first pencil stroke and seeing how smooth and beautiful it was, was priceless. This is how it went from a customer request to a real production project.”

“Once we started design and development, we knew that we could make a cool little App, but we were blown away by the response after it went live on the App Store. Between the free and paid version of SketchBook Mobile, more than 1.5 million people have downloaded it since it launched last September.”

Motel 6

To me, the mobile version appeals more to experienced digital painters like Susan Murtaugh or Thierry Schiel. Do you agree? And does SBMP try to change that?

“I think SketchBook Mobile really exposed Autodesk’s sketching technology to the world-at-large. Even though the artwork of experienced digital painters stands out because of their exceptional quality, it is truly amazing to see the types of people who have become dedicated finger painters. When you read the reviews on the App Store, you find that many designers and architects are using it as part of their professional work.

“I have also received many emails from people who claim to have little artistic ability, but have become inspired by using SketchBook Mobile to be creative and express themselves. One person even sent us a thank you letter because he started selling t-shirts with the art he created on the iPhone, saying it was the “best 3 dollars he’s ever spent.” Personally, I’m biased toward one of my favorite users, my daughter. She’s 4 years old, and she’s completely comfortable drawing on SketchBook Mobile. With her little fingers, the iPhone is actually pretty big!

“The iPad changes things purely from the perspective of the size and feel of the device. For some, the idea of sketching on the small screen isn’t intuitive, especially if they haven’t tried it before. The iPad is a more familiar size, and so much more obvious as a virtual sketchbook. This aspect alone has changed the perception of digital sketching.”

SketchBook on the iPad already has some comunnity integration, is this somewhere you wanna go? You are already supporting fingerpainters by sponsoring art-shows.

“We are proud to be able to help out and sponsor some of the art shows that are taking place. The iPhone exhibit happening at Comicon in Naples this April 30th and The World at our Fingertips, which is opening on June 26th in Algoma, Wisconsin. The most exciting aspect of this is seeing how sketching and paint Apps are attracting new interest in Art & Design. The excitement around mobile devices and the iPad has been tremendous and a happy bi-product has been the added attention and interest to the creative users. We are pretty proud of what our customers have been doing with our App, so it is an honor to support them at shows and events.

Penninsula Park

“We are definitely going to continue looking at ways to work with and participate with the community, both in-App and in the ‘real’ world.”

One of the most valued features in ‘Brushes‘ is the Viewer component, where you can open paintings, then replay or save at higher resolution format. Does SBMP plan on anything like that, maybe some tight integration with the desktop app?

“I can’t say anything specific about what we are doing for the near future, but customer feedback plays a huge roll in driving where our products go. For us, it is very advantageous to have a product family that uses the exact same paint engine. Not only does it result in all the products producing identical brush quality and appearance, it also opens up a number of possible opportunities.”

I personally love the new brush tips in SBMP, or at least the first half of it 🙂 Now that the iPad has been released, what sort of updates can we expect to see from SBMP in the near future? E.g. If there’s one feature I’m missing now it would be masking. Any hope?

“We have no shortage of ideas and plans for SketchBook. The first release on iPad is really just the beginning. We’ve already put out a quick update to support sharing to iTunes, so users can now export PNG or PSD files directly from the SketchBook Pro Gallery.


“In terms of workflow and feature enhancements, now that the App and the iPad are out there, we can finally see how this new medium fits into people’s lives.”

We fingerpainters like to see ourselves as some early adoptors to a new way to create art, maybe even an own school. How do you see the scene from outside?

“Fingerpainters have definitely lead the way to prove what can be done on the mobile medium. I think they were a huge contributing factor to SketchBook moving to the iPhone and iPad. For that, I am extremely thankful for their passion and dedication.”

Chris, thanks a lot for the interview!

(Chris Cheung is Product Manager of SketchBook at Autodesk)

[Update]Here’s a fresh video of SketchBookPro in action:

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