“Leonardo’s Notebook”—My Killer App for the iPad 2

Attention all mobile app developers: I’m about to give you an idea for a great new consumer app.

I think it’s something that would appeal to any adventurous, creative, curious person—travelers, outdoorsmen, students, scrapbookers, artists, and the like. I think this is the moment to build it, since it’s something that wouldn’t have been possible before the emergence of tablet devices with built-in cameras, such as the iPad 2, the Samsung Galaxy Tab, and the Motorola Xoom. I’m not going to charge you a dime for this idea, because I just want to see it get built. I’d do it myself if I had the programming and design skills, but I don’t—and besides, I’m a little busy right now running Xconomy San Francisco. If you decide to build it, just make me an unpaid advisor to your startup or something. Okay?

This app is called Leonardo’s Notebook. Here’s the two-sentence description. You can put this right at the top of the app’s listing in the iTunes App Store or the Android Market: “Leonardo’s Notebook brings a little bit of the artistic and scientific spirit of Leonardo da Vinci into your life. It gives you the tools to be a better observer, organizer, curator, and explorer of the interesting people, places, events, and objects in your world.


* Capture the cool stuff in your world in still photos, short videos, and audio recordings.
* Create digital drawings, doodles, and paintings and compose text files.
* Copy text, e-mails, maps, or images from the Web or other apps.
* Save the items you capture or create as “scraps” on personalized notebook pages with the look and feel of paper journals or scrapbooks.
* Edit, annotate, resize, and reposition your scraps to create beautiful and instructive pages.
* Make pages interactive by linking scraps to each other and to the Web.
* Export and share all or parts of your notebook pages as images, PDFs, or public Web pages.
* See other users’ public notebooks and comment on them.
* Search your own notebooks by keyword.
* Discover new ideas. Use words, phrases, or images in scraps to proactively search for related material on the Web, or allow the app to automatically find and highlight media, products, and events related to your scraps.
* Don’t worry about losing stuff—every scrap and page is automatically copied to a secure online account.

There could be lots of other features too, but if you’re a developer looking for a challenging project, those should be enough to get you started.

Here’s the backstory to this concept, with a bit of detail about where the ideas come from, how the software should work, and why I think it could be an important, best-selling app.

First off, I’m a huge fanboy of Leonardo da Vinci, the famous painter-architect-inventor-scientist who lived in Florence and Milan from 1452 to 1519 and is the very definition of the Renaissance man. A couple of years ago, I went through a phase where I was consuming everything about him that I could get my hands on. If you were reading my stuff back then, you probably noticed this, as I worked mentions of Leonardo into an embarrassing number of columns and articles.

Since Leonardo didn’t leave behind any published works, we know him entirely through his paintings (of which only 22 survive), what little his contemporaries wrote about him, and his voluminous journals—there are about 5,000 pages in all. In the journals, Leonardo recorded sketches, quotations, diagrams, thought experiments, arguments with himself, and even daily trivia like packing lists. They are a remarkable record of a mind at work. Leonardo tried to make sense of the things he observed by recording them in extreme visual detail; in a sense he was the first multimedia producer, frequently mixing pictures and text on a single page. The journals allow us to chart Leonardo’s lifelong obsessions with matters such as the nature of light, the behavior of water, the motions of animals and people, the internal structure of the human body, the flight of birds, and the possibility of mechanical flight.

By today’s standards, a lot of Leonardo’s thinking was pre-scientific. He didn’t have the concept of formulating a hypothesis and then attempting to disprove it. He seemed to prefer to work out an idea in his own head, then comb the external world for examples that supported it, even twisting the details when necessary. Nevertheless, he was a consummate observer. He saw things that nobody else had ever noticed (or at least, that nobody had bothered to record), such as the way water flowing in a river ripples and coils around an obstacle. Some biographers have even suggested that Leonardo was a genetic freak, gifted with a neuro-optical system that somehow allowed him to see faster than other people, like a photographer with a strobe flash. I doubt that; my own interpretation is that his ravenous curiosity gave him the patience to look closer at things, with fewer preconceptions.

What does all that have to do with us today and our mobile gadgets and apps? I think there’s a lot to admire in Leonardo’s habit of understanding-through-recording. Moreover, it’s pretty clear that young children are born scientists, spending big chunks of their waking time cataloguing and classifying and experimenting, and that this habit eventually gets beaten out of them by schoolroom traditions of rote learning. I think that by emulating Leonardo and being better documentarians in our daily lives, many of us could rediscover the personal rewards that come from exercising our innate curiosity and creativity.

Unfortunately, you can’t simply flip a switch and “think like Leonardo” (though there is a good book that will help you get closer). And if few of us can see as acutely as Leonardo did, even fewer have his artistic skill or the obsessive patience to put everything down in a journal. That’s where our technology comes in. We are finally at the point where our mobile computers can turn us into proto-Leonardos, by making it drop-dead easy to capture, edit, annotate, and share our life experiences digitally.

Consider the iPad, the tablet I’m most familiar with. It’s shaped like a journal. You can write or draw on it like a journal. You can use it to record sound, from voice memos to birdsong. And with the iPad 2, which hits stores in the U.S. next week, you can take photos and record videos. (Using a camera may keep us from actually seeing things in the world quite as thoroughly as if we slowed down to draw them, but let’s face it, photography is a far more practical alternative for most people. Leonardo certainly would have used cameras if he’d had them.)

On top of all that, the iPad’s multitouch interface makes it easy and fun to manipulate the media that you capture and arrange it in attractive ways. Moreover, the iPad is wirelessly connected to the whole universe of digital information, meaning you can quickly find and copy information related to whatever matter you happen to be documenting in your notebook, and effortlessly publish your own notebooks for others to share.

If I had my way, the Leonardo’s Notebook app would have a retro-futuristic feel to it, mixing the yellowed-parchment-and-vellum aesthetic of Leonardo’s actual notebooks with an array of sleek yet unobtrusive controls for tasks like arranging photos, drawings, text notes, and other scraps on a page. It would be a crime to embark on designing this app without spending some time with Leonardo da Vinci, a superb multimedia CD-ROM created in 1996 by Corbis, the image archive company founded by Bill Gates. I confess that my love for all things Leonardo, and my conviction that Leonardo’s ideas can be amplified through modern technology, dates back to this disc. And obviously, some of the features and elements of my proposed Leonardo app are already out there in other mobile apps: I would point to iPad apps like Evernote, Springpad, Penultimate, and eJournal, and also to Inkseine, an experimental program developed for the Tablet PC platform by Ken Hinckley of Microsoft Research. Speaking of Microsoft, the “Courier” dual-tablet project, which made a brief splash in 2009 and early 2010 but was then either shelved or taken back underground, seemed to be going in similar directions, but who knows if the company is still working on it.

So there you have it. The basics of this idea have been rattling around in my head for about three years. When Apple announced in early 2010 that it was going to introduce a tablet computer, I got pretty excited. Given the company’s tradition of building elegant, intuitive user interfaces, it seemed likely that the device would have capabilities that made creating and curating content far easier for average users. Alas, the omission of cameras in the original iPad crippled it, from my point of view, as a platform for the Leonardo app. So I put the idea back in cold storage for a while and waited for the technology to catch up.

Obviously, making an app like this work would require both some serious user interface-design chops and some database design experience. I’m not under any illusions that somebody will read this column and go build the app next week. And I’m not sure what the business model for this app would be. I think you could charge a fair bit for the app itself, maybe $4.99, and perhaps offer extra cloud storage as a premium subscription service, the way Evernote does. I’ll leave all that to others to figure out. But I had to get the proposal off my chest, and the arrival of the iPad 2 and its Android equivalents have finally brought us to the moment when the idea seems feasible.

Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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6 responses to ““Leonardo’s Notebook”—My Killer App for the iPad 2”

  1. Great idea Wade. I admire Leonardo as well and do agree that your idea is timely. Many of the new tools and devices we are using and adopting are leading to this concept you propose. It isn’t for everyone, but is a wonderful idea for those that are naturally curious and willing to share those notions and observations. I look forward to it.

  2. JWilly48519 says:

    “Moreover, the iPad is wirelessly connected to the whole universe of digital information, meaning you can quickly find and copy information related to whatever matter you happen to be documenting in your notebook (…)”

    Ummm…well, yes, but what if you additionally care whether the information you are connected to and can copy is optimally correct and valuable?

    You’re postulating an information exchange paradigm in which expertise-based review and influence over publication and distribution channels is jettisoned, and information is democraticized without regard to quality. Your users wouldn’t enjoy the result of using that paradigm if it became popular, because they’d be interacting with a mountain of information of unknown quality. They wouldn’t have enough time or pre-knowledge to individually perform all of the expertise-based filtering that traditional knowledge management systems utilize to identify the best information for learners to learn. Thus inevitably your users would learn less optimally.

    Imagine if there were no teachers, professors, librarians, editors, and other systems for recognizing and indicating information quality and individual subject matter expertise. Would learning be easier or harder? Expert analysis and filtering is an essential element of any optimal information system. Pure crowdsourcing is dysfunctional.

  3. Nicholas says:

    Big words, JWilly. Since when to people keep journals because they want somebody to steal it/ read it? I think you completely missed this idea. Re-read.

  4. Thom says:

    JWilly, I understand your premise, but I don’t accept it. You’re argument hinges on the “pure” in pure crowdsourcing. If you accept the “pure” aspect, then you’re argument makes sense. However, this is no more pure crowdsourcing than Wikipedia or Linux, or any other open source movement. The teachers, professors, librarians, and editors are still there, just not in the conventional manner. To varying degrees, self-organizing systems will arise in response to the quality (or lack thereof) of information. If you believe in natural selection (I’m guessing if you’re here, you do), you can envision the spontaneous creation and destruction of a number of interlinked “hiveminds” predicated on different kinds of fitness: political, academic, social. It won’t be perfect, but it will be highly functional. Google has done pretty well on the self-organizing concept of page rank, haven’t they?

  5. DZ says:

    Voodoopad comes quite close