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Adobe uses Max to unveil 2017 offerings, new 'cloud-native' initiative

Each year Adobe’s Max conference is a showcase of the company’s newest products and future directions. This year in San Diego, California was the largest yet, with over 10,000 attendees, including yours truly. The scale of the event is in keeping with the growing size of Adobe’s product portfolio, which now includes dozens of products and services spanning design, video, illustration, photography, and more. Central to the conference were the themes of Adobe’s solutions increasingly becoming what it calls cloud-native, and its expanding use of all-things AI, wrapped into a rubric it calls Project Sensei.

Initially, Creative Cloud was primarily a way to move Adobe from licensed software to a subscription model. Increasingly, though, it is moving to cloud access for assets of all kinds. A growing drive to support non-local group collaboration has helped speed this along. Its Cloud Native initiative takes this even further, and features applications and assets that are natively available and accessible on any platform, from any place. Some of Adobe’s newer tools, like XD and Project Spark typify this. In addition, Adobe showed off a cloud-based Lightroom-like project, codenamed Nimbus, that will be available for beta testing next year.

Adobe's-Sensei-is-its-catch-all-term-for-everything-AI-in-its-software-and-servicesSome of Photoshop’s coolest features, like Content-Aware Fill have used AI technology to do their magic, but with its 2017 product line, Adobe is greatly expanding its use of various kinds of machine learning and AI. For example, Adobe Stock is now equipped with Visual Search, so you can look for images that are similar to one that you like, but perhaps can’t license. Adobe even sneak peeked the ability to let you visual search on a selection out of your Photoshop document, so you could mock up a composition somewhat like what you’re looking for and have Adobe track down a finished version that is available for license.

Even experienced Photoshop users can be daunted by the difficulty of importing and placing realistic 3D models in their scenes. 3D tools that produce commercial quality renderings are complicated, as is the process of acquiring models and materials that work together with lighting simulation to create a scene. Adobe demonstrated a unique new “all-in-one” solution, code-named Project Felix, that it expects to beta in 2017. With Felix, a designer can find models in Adobe Stock (or elsewhere), apply a selection of materials (many of which will also be in Adobe Stock), and then place them on a background.

Adobe has used some of its Sensei magic to allow automatic object placement on the ground plane of a background image, and to allow realistic lighting by creating a sort-of light probe from the background image. Another piece of magic is a Magic Wand that allows intelligent selection of portions of a 3D object. This is a big deal for anyone who has ever tried to re-color a 3D model they got from a typical online library.

One of the major themes for Adobe this year is improved tools for sharing, as part of its overall push to support more effective collaboration. To that end, Photoshop now includes Templates, a concept common enough for those used to Office, but often missing from design tools. With Templates — many of which are downloadable from Adobe Stock — a designer can start with a base design and set of layers, and then simply customize it to their needs, like I did with this News announcement template:

Of course, the dark side of templates will be that zillions of pieces of content will now look suspiciously similar, just like we saw when people started using Word and PowerPoint templates.

In a similar vein, groups producing a large number of designs using Adobe’s innovative XD (eXperience Design) app, which supports rapid design and prototyping of multi-platform interfaces, can now share libraries of objects, colors, and other assets. Even better, changing a color or font in the library can change it across all the places where it is used. That allows design teams or companies to treat libraries like style guides, to insure consistency in visual design across projects without adding a lot of manual labor. Adobe has also added live device preview to XD, so you can see your prototype running on whatever physical device you have available to test it on. Since it is actually a full version of XD running on the device, any changes you make in your prototype are immediately reflected on the device.

Version control is another issue that designers, just like software developers, have struggled with forever. Adobe showed off a clever idea for a new visual timeline feature in XD. It allows any member of the team to use a slider to go back in time (a bit like the history slider in Google Earth) and see what the design looked like at that time. This can be useful in case you want to resurrect elements of an older design, as you can simply copy them and then paste them into the current version. Along with that, Adobe is looking at a true cloud-native system for XD, that would allow simultaneous editing of the same design document by multiple authors, with annotations on which art boards are being worked on by which contributors.

Search (a la Office 2016’s new toolbar Help search) makes for a quick way to find and select a tool or command by name. You can also search through your layers, if you’re the type who uses a ton of them. The Learn tab under Search is a unified way to search all of Adobe’s official online Photoshop documentation — including tutorials.

This is a huge leap forward compared with some prior releases, where searching help seemed to find mostly arbitrary bits of user-contributed suggestions. As you’d expect, you can also search Adobe Stock for images tagged with a particular keyword. For those who collaborate with others using Libraries, you can now follow a library, giving you read-only access and having the libraries contents automatically updated when they change.

While this year’s Max didn’t have any single massive breakthrough — although the undercurrent of AI-everywhere and real-time collaboration certainly qualify as major themes — Adobe continues to push the envelope in enough directions that serious creatives will have plenty to look forward to as the 2017 version of its Creative Cloud rolls out.

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