PhotoMath: A Math Beginner’s Dream App
To me, applications like this one are really important for school students. I bought my first significant Android the same year I began my Physics degree at my university, and immediately I realised how tremendously helpful it was. From accurate graphing applications to TI emulators (don’t judge me, the real thing costs crazy amounts here!), passing through giants like Wolfram and MATLAB Mobile, there were a lot of tools for one to excel with. In fact, I’d say that without Android I wouldn’t have chosen to enroll in a mathematics degree too – so thanks, Google.
The thing with most of the math applications for Android is that the input is usually cumbersome or tiring. Things like matrixes or long functions full of parenthesis are simply a pain in the ass to type down on what’s often single-line textboxes. Despite the immense power of my Android phone as a calculator, I still rely on my humble but trusty Casio fx-570ES Plus for most assignments – not the best or fanciest, but it’s what I can afford here. But even when I find little use in the hundreds of calculator apps that come out, I still try out every worthy math app I can find, particularly those with innovate input methods or good informative output.
PhotoMath has some of both, but when I first heard about it I had that initial hesitation of “it’s probably not going to work very well”. Applications used to detect real-life objects or text have come a long way, and I still remember when World Lens blew everyone’s minds. The thing with PhotoMath is that it has to detect both the real-world scribble, then also pass that data through a recognition algorithm that is not just letters but numbers and operators too. Moreover, the spatial arrangement of elements and their distribution make up the syntax of what’s being scanned, and a tiny change or mistake in any of the function or equation’s elements would logically ruin the whole process of the calculation you want solved. In this regard, this camera-calculator app is very ambitious as it has to tackle a rather rough problem with absolute precision to do what it’s designed to do; and from the beginning I want to make it clear that it is not designed for advanced math.
Let’s get the interface out of the way: it’s just awesome. Simple, intuitive, and minimal. The application is flatter than a typical Material Design app, as it lacks shadows under the elements. Nevertheless, there are very nice and smooth transitions everywhere in every moving menu. All you’ll find is your input history at the bottom, help and feedback buttons on the right and a flash/lantern button at the top. The center has the scanner which you can adjust with your fingers to capture precisely what you want. It doesn’t get much easier than this, and the intuitiveness of it coupled with the swift tutorial make for a one-step learning curve. It’s simply the perfect interface for the job.
The core of a calculator is its functionality, and in this regard, the application is useful, but if you are a STEM student you will probably not open it much at all. I wanted to get a good idea of exactly what it could do, as I had heard mixed comments regarding the exact repertoire (some reported certain operators and functions worked while some claimed they didn’t). However, keep in mind it does not support handwriting recognition yet. I started out with a long Sturm-Liouville operator overkill and I was very, very surprised when it recognized it – but upon close inspection, I noticed it didn’t take a couple of symbols in (something I’d notice a few more times). I trickled down to find its limitations, and I had to go through a few pages of content to do so. No linear algebra (forget transformations), no real function analysis, no derivatives nor integrals in any way, etc. As far as range goes, cheap calculators have the same built-in functions. When it comes to things like solving grade 2 or 3 equations, it may even be faster to use a calculator algorithm and punch in the few values. Surprisingly, it does manage inequalities quite well, including those with modules. It also does take in systems of equations, and the core trigonometric functions.
Considering there are still things to be worked on in the Android release, I think that the app offers a good service. The recognition of elements is surprisingly accurate, even indoors. It is to be expected given that Microblink, the company behind it, specializes in text recognition. When it comes to certain special characters, however, the app sometimes does mistake them – especially if they are smaller superscripts or subscripts. The symbols related to unsupported operations understandably don’t make the cut either. Also, when it comes to greek characters the app is a little inconsistent. Beta (β) appeared in some of the inputs I scanned, but other symbols like gamma (γ) were confused (with x, for example). This again points to this app being aimed at beginner math, because the symbols and syntax it can take in don’t relate to operations that go much further from quadratic equations.
And under these conditions, it is great. The process is fast, but what comes after is even better. The application gives you a pretty detailed list of steps to achieve the solution, which makes it a fantastic option for those learning how to solve equations or want to track down their mistake. You can tap each element to get a little tidbit of extra information, too, in case you don’t get what’s going on right away. On some of the longer solutions, the process ends before an end result sometimes, prompting you to send feedback. But I only really saw this in inconclusive equations (indeterminate compatible; infinite solutions), so for most basic needs this will rapidly suffice. Also, the detection of equation systems is very good. At the same time, I notice that the inputs I punched in seemed to lengthily focus on arranging the system, and in the more complex ones it would also end when the variables are arranged on one side, rather than the solution. Something really useful is that it can give you tips on simplifying terms that some might not do so otherwise, so it’s also good for learning certain patterns and optimizations.
All in all, this app is a remarkable achievement of design and text recognition. I have a lot of math app solutions on my phone, which I plan on writing about on a future editorial, and while this doesn’t replace my default method of using the Note line’s S-pen’s Wolfram integration, it is still good for those who don’t want to go through the trouble of writing things down with a stylus or an awkward keyboard. It makes math solving very natural (and at the same time, unnaturally different!) , and since it’s one of the first few notable examples of this kind of technology, I’m really excited to see how this – and other options – evolve. For now, you will find more precision and coverage in actual calculators or services like Wolfram, albeit with an implicit hassle of input. Nevertheless, if you are in high-school or learning math you might want to check this out, as the ease of use coupled with the powerful recognition and the informative output makes for quite a handy tool. For those tackling the horrors of multi-variable calculus or mind-boggling transformations, your high-end TI or Casio has no substitute yet – especially in the exam room…!
You can find PhotoMath in the Playstore!
Author’s Note: When I say applications like these are important, I do not mean to say that I believe their use should be widespread, or that they should replace any part of original curriculum. Like every tool, these applications should be used wisely and in regulation. They can be quite a crutch and their use while or for learning core foundations should be discouraged. Nevertheless, I don’t see much wrong in using it for practicing operations you already know or master. Technology like this can definitely make students lazy, but so can any kind of technology when not used in moderation!
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