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Create vector images in a snap with Vector Magic

Converting pixelated images to vector images used to be a hassle, but a new online tool from students at Stanford University makes the entire process a breeze.

Those of us who are artistically challenged need all the help we can get when it comes to design software. A new tool called Vector Magic--the result of Stanford University Artificial Intelligence Laboratory research project by James Diebel and Jacob Norda--seems to be a valuable addition to the arsenal of free apps available for creating and editing images online.

Basically, Vector Magic takes rasterized images (composed of pixels) and converts them to vector (or scalable) images. The result is an image that can be easily resized with no blur or pixelation--an ideal format for logos or other images that need to appear both large and small. Vector Magic supports the uploading of JPEG, GIF, PNG, BMP, and TIFF formats, and can export its final products as EPS, SVG, or PNG files. A warning on the Vector Magic blog today warns users to be patient because of a recent upswing in the load on its servers, but I had no problem at all converting JPEG images of various sizes into vector images in no time at all.

Vector Magic interface
After your image is vectorized, you can compare it with the original and edit. CNET Networks

After you upload your image to Vector Magic, you'll be asked to specify what sort of image it is: photograph, logo with blending at the color boundaries (aliased), or logo without blending at the boundaries (antialiased). A checkbox below the uploading tool lets you select a "Pre-fill image type" option, which will automatically detect which type of image you are uploading. Once the image type is set, you must pick a level of image detail (high, medium, or low). If your image is a logo, you must also specify whether it has less or more than 12 colors. If less than 12, Vector Magic will analyze the colors and you can specify and alter the color palette manually. If your image is a photograph or a logo with more than 12 colors, you'll need to trust Vector Magic to identify them all correctly, which it does fairly well.

Now that all your settings are selected, you're ready to vectorize your image. Depending on the size of your picture and the amount of detail, the vectorizing process can take up to a few minutes. One of the coolest features of Vector Magic is the ability to track the progress of your work. Using a cookie-based system, Vector Magic will list all of your active images from the past 30 days on a My Uploaded Images page. A progress bar for images in that list--such as on the "yummy.gif" image below--displays the progress vectorizing your image. While that image is being processed, you are free to edit your other images or upload more. Multitasking in an online app? Color me impressed.

When your picture is finished converting, a split-screen display will compare the original, rasterized image with the new vector image. Graphic controls that appear over your image let you zoom and pan to examine details. On the right side of the interface, "Troubleshooting" options offer the ability to tweak your image further. If fine details were lost, you can reprocess the image on the highest quality setting. If color boundaries are not smooth, you can process on a lower setting. Likewise, you can reduce, add, or fine-tune the colors in your palette to improve the quality.

My Uploaded Images on Vector Magic
A My Uploaded Images page shows all of your active work. CNET Networks

Also under the "Troubleshooting" options is a valuable editing feature that lets you tweak your creation directly from the online application, without having to download the file and edit it using Adobe Illustrator or another graphic-design application. You can switch back and forth between the original bitmap image and the vectorized result to compare the differences. Tools like the "finder" identify lost details because of "pinching," and you can also "zap" remnants of antialiasing to create a more accurate finished product.

After you're all done and ready to save your creation, you have an option of exporting your image as an EPS, SVG, or PNG file. You can also share your creation with others using a handy, embeddable URL, such as the one I created for this image of a helpful fellow taking care of an improperly disposed couch cushion. Never before has picking up the trash looked so pretty.

As mentioned earlier, I can barely draw a straight line...even when I'm using a software program. When forced to create invitations or programs, I generally scream "help" and get a designer friend to convert my image into an EPS file that I can edit in Illustrator. With Vector Magic, the screaming can finally stop and I might (gasp) even be able to create fliers and posters all by myself.