The Skqueak That Roars: New App Combines Drawing, Audio, Images

What began as an effort by a couple of San Diego engineers to bring computer vision to the iPhone has resulted instead in “Skqueak,” a mobile app that enables users to sketch over photos and videos on their iPhones. The Skqueak app is now available in Apple’s iTunes App Store.

Sanjay Nichani, who moved to San Diego in 2006 after working at Cognex (NASDAQ: CGNX) the Natick, MA-based pioneer in machine vision, says he founded Pelfunc (Skqueak’s parent company) with Ray Fix, another former Cognoid, in mid-2010. The original idea was to develop an app capable of recognizing electric circuit designs or the kind of molecular geometries used to depict chemical reactions.

“We said it would be nice to have audio with the pictures, and that’s how Skqueak evolved,” Nichani says. As the Pelfunc founders made it possible to overlay sketches (along with messages and graphics) with audio over photos and videos, Nichani says they realized what they had was more of a social networking tool than a computer vision app.

By the end of 2010, they decided to run with their new concept, even though “it meant that we’d need to develop a website and backend system support” so users could create their own accounts for storing and sharing their Skqueaks, Nichani says.

Skqueak employs a drawing function that reminds me of Draw Something, the Pictionary-like mobile app developed by Omgpop, the New York company acquired by Zynga in March for $180 million. You draw by dragging your finger across an image on the iPhone display screen.

With Skqueak, however, users also can record audio while they sketch a handlebar mustache and devil’s horns—or anything else—on one of their own photos or videos. The result is a sort of multimedia postcard. The founders envision users sending “Skqueaks” to their friends, attaching them to e-mails and tweets, posting them to their Facebook pages, and even embedding them in their blogs. Here’s an example:

“A big part of our strategy is to use social media to promote Skqueak as a platform, and then to build different verticals,” Nichani says. For example, users could create a multimedia classified ad that could be embedded on Craigslist by taking a photo of something they want to sell—say, a car—and using the Skqueak app to draw arrows that point out the custom wheels, tinted windows, and other features. “There are a lot of possibilities for working with other partners,” Nichani adds.

In developing Skqueak, the partners conducted a lot of patent searches, and Nichani says they discovered that Stanford University holds or has applied for a lot of patents in related mobile app designs. Nichani tells me, “We have an exclusive license to all Stanford patents (in addition to our own) and they are also an equity partner and a collaborator, [so] we view this as a barrier to entry for other competitors.” What sets Skqueak apart, though, is the ability to simultaneously sketch and record audio with a photo or video, making it a multimedia message.

“The innovation and our patents all deal with the fact that you have a format that allows you to combine these different elements, and the app allows you to create these things pretty easily and pretty quickly,” Nichani says. He acknowledges that some voice memo apps and certain instructional and educational apps developed for iPad presentations come close. He even sees similarities with Instagram, the photo-sharing mobile app. “There are apps that have some elements, but we haven’t seen anything that combines everything. None have this integrated aspect that Skqueak does. It’s an app, a website, and a format.”

After launching a beta version in March, Nichani says Apple approved the Skqueak app for its iTunes store, and it became available there earlier this week.

Nichani and Fix have mostly self-funded and bootstrapped Pelfunc, and Nichani says their next move would likely be to apply for residency in an incubator like the EvoNexus program operated by CommNexus, the San Diego nonprofit industry group.

Pelfunc’s business model is to initially attract as many users as possible by offering Skqueak as a free downloadable app, with a one-year pro subscription service that includes unlimited storage available for $5 a year.

Customers would also be able to take advantage of features allowing them to create separate private and public channels for their Skqueaks. And with such features, he adds, “We think there will be opportunities for advertising on the website as well.”

Bruce V. Bigelow was the editor of Xconomy San Diego from 2008 to 2018. Read more about his life and work here. Follow @bvbigelow

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