Mental Canvas is changing the way designers sketch. Not by removing the organic approach to creating art—strokes are still made by hand with a drawing tool. But the graphic and media design system created by Yale Computer Science Professor Julie Dorsey allows an artist to take her illustrations into new dimensions, providing perspective and depth that can’t be achieved with pen and paper alone. Using Mental Canvas, a designer can illustrate ideas and depict design concepts freely in virtual space and then glide above and through the space, exploring the new worlds she’s created from every angle. What’s more, she can preserve the precise way she traveled through that picture to show others. It’s a perfect marriage of 2-D and 3-D; of human illustration and computer vision.
“Mental Canvas picks up where drawing on paper leaves off. Ultimately, we want our software to be part of visual communicators’ everyday workflow,” says Dorsey, “and we think the graphical media generated with the software will be used in movies, commercials and visual presentations.”
The startup is well on its way to taking the design world by storm—beginning with a much-publicized partnership with Microsoft whose large-format Surface Studio with its multi-touch screen and integrated pen is the perfect hardware for the graphic immersion experience Mental Canvas provides.
They’ve also engaged a group of high-end firms in entertainment, advertising, architecture, scientific illustration and industrial design to participate in a beta trial in advance of a general product release. The beta users are not only producing beautiful images and scenes, they are demonstrating how the system can facilitate everything from movie production and product design to interactive publishing and theme park planning. Dorsey says: “It’s useful in industrial settings for people doing mockups as well as scientific illustrations and materials. Anything where graphics is part of the day-to-day business.”
Mental Canvas was recently awarded $100,000 from the YEI Innovation Fund, which provides seed-stage funding to promising Yale startups. Dorsey first became involved with the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute during a 2012 YEI Fellowship, and has worked hard in the intervening years to build a more functional product, raising grant support from the National Science Foundation and others, and building a strong operations team for the business. The Fund represents a partnership between Yale, Connecticut Innovations and Webster Bank, and is managed by New Haven-based Elm Street Ventures.
“We look for dedicated, passionate entrepreneurs, and Julie fits that description,” says Rob Bettigole, Elm Street Ventures’ Managing Partner. “She’s a brilliant scientist who is passionate about the business’ success.”
Dorsey says the funding will help Mental Canvas move their commercialization platform forward and launch their authoring system. At the same time, Dorsey is considering new directions and new partners for her technology.