AMITIAE - Thursday 18 July 2013

StampBox: Creating Icons for Use in Messaging Apps

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By Graham K. Rogers


The metacommunicative pictorial representation of a facial expression - the emoticon - has been with us for a number of years, with the first records showing some use in the late 19th Century. Of late, however, with the increased use of messaging apps - on smartphones, tablet devices and computers - many other representations have become available.

One of the more popular apps for communication via text messages is LINE: an app from the Japanese Naver Corporation. First released in 2011, there are now over 140 million users. The app works on several smartphone platforms. Although it is a text-based app, a common form of messaging used is the sticker. Emoticons and emoji are also used.

With the number of messages I send and receive each day, I find it is often easier to communicate using an image, especially in the mixed-language environment I work in. While there are many types of image to choose from (and more can be downloaded) there is a certain sameness. There is also the risk of some images being a shade too cute. This may be fine for high school students, but communicating with some might benefit from a different level of icon.

An app with a certain potential in this field came my way this week. StampBox allows users to create their own icons, and with this the ability to convey more personalised messaging.

When the app first opens there is a message from the developer in a standard blue iOS text panel. The English here could do with some checking. This always makes me wonder if there is anything else amiss, however, the app then opens a nice, workmanlike screen with a number of options: New stamp, Stamp management, Camera, Album, and Settings.

With no stamps yet created, I started with the Settings. This is a quite simple panel with options for turning ads off (in-app purchase), and with Information on "How to", Other apps and Inquiry (URL). Then I turned to the creation of the stamps (or icons) themselves.

Pressing the "New Stamp" button gives the two options (plus Cancel) of the Camera, or the Album for an already-existing image. Using the camera I took a number of test images, finding that while light and background are important, the best results came from using a dark object, with no flash. Information in the app also suggested drawing icons on paper for use in the app.

Once a picture is taken, a resize and crop panel is offered. The square shape of the crop should also be taken into consideration when taking a picture. When the image is adjusted and accepted, it is saved. The user may use this via the Stamp Management panel where there are already a number of images supplied with the app. Looking at these may give a user a better idea of how the icons are best created. What appears to be a good photograph, may not necessarily look good as an icon.

After the crop, a panel opens with the image - now in monochrome - displayed. A slider below the image allows the level of thresholding to be adjusted. With some images this is critical. It was here that I found that some of the photographs I took (or selected from the album) just were not suitable. There are two options as well as the slider, marked Type A and Type B. These select the type of black background texture.

When the user is happy with the image, it can be saved to the app library where it can be accessed via the Stamp Management option. Touching any icon brings up a panel with three options (plus cancel): LINE, Save to Album and remove.

The link to the LINE app is not particularly easy to manage, unlike selecting an icon within LINE. The app opens with a Share panel allowing the icon to be sent to Friends, Groups or Chat. Friends has a list of the user's friends. Selecting one, shares the icon, but users as asked first if they really want to share. Groups opens any groups the user has created, while Chat, allows the user to post an image directly to an existing thread.

The two other options on the main page - Camera and Album - allow an image to be displayed onto which one or more of the icons in the library may be pasted. Instead of black, the icon may be coloured. Its size and position can also be adjusted. What looks like a file icon at the bottom of the screen allows export to LINE as well as Facebook, Twitter or to the User's photo album.

The icons that a user can produce are not the same as those that are available in apps like LINE or in the emoticons already available, either in terms of style or quality. There is however much value in the uniqueness of such output and with StampBox once the initial learning curve has passed, creating a new icon is the work of a few seconds.

Apart from the removal of advertising, there appear to be no other in-app purchases, so the app is free for those who do not mind the advertising at the bottom of the screen. While this is aimed mainly at younger users, there is some potential for business users as the icons may be used in other shared media (Facebook/Twitter) which many firms are putting to good use.

[The definition of Emoticon that I use at the start of this article, and the information concerning earliest use, comes from Wikipedia.]

Graham K. Rogers teaches at the Faculty of Engineering, Mahidol University in Thailand where he is also Assistant Dean. He wrote in the Bangkok Post, Database supplement on IT subjects. For the last seven years of Database he wrote a column on Apple and Macs.



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