Microsoft is readying AI-powered Azure digital inking services

Microsoft is adding new ink-based cognitive services to its stable of AI programming interface offerings, as it will detail at Build 2019.
Written by Mary Jo Foley, Senior Contributing Editor
Credit: Microsoft (from Build 2018)

Microsoft slowly has been trickling out information on some of the Build 2019 sessions happening at its early May developer conference. One of the posted sessions that hits a lot of bingo buzzwords is "Azure Ink: Building for the Web, Fueled By Cloud AI."

Microsoft already offers developers access to Windows Ink interfaces as part of Windows 10 so that they can build digital inking into their own applications. But currently, there is no such Microsoft product or service called "Azure Ink."

Azure Ink is the new name that Microsoft is giving to its Ink-specific cognitive services. When I asked about this, a spokesperson confirmed my suspicions and said "Azure Ink is the name for all ink cognitive services all-up." Cognitive services are AI programming interfaces that Microsoft and third-party developers can add to applications to provide custom search, natural-language input, anomaly detection, speech and other functions.

Microsoft currently offers testers access to "Project Ink Analysis" via its Cognitive Services Labs. Project Ink Analysis "provides cloud APIs to understand digital ink content" enabling developers to build apps that recognize digital handwriting, common shapes and the layout of a document.

At Build 2018, Microsoft officials talked up these cloud APIs during a session entitled "Harnessing the Power of AI with Windows Ink." And with the new Surface Hub 2S rolling out starting this June, Microsoft officials want and need more applications to be able to perform richer inking tasks. In Microsoft's case, its Whiteboard application, as demonstrated during the recent 2S launch event in New York City, will be able to handle these kinds of more complex inking-related interactions.

At Build this year, Avani Reddy, Microsoft Program Manager on the Input and Azure Ink team, is presenting about Azure Ink. She also co-presented the aforementioned Build 2018 inking session. 

At Build 2018, Reddy said that cloud services for "smart ink" provide a consistent ink recognition experience across devices and platforms; faster improvements to the core recognition capabilities; personalized recognition when used with Microsoft cloud authentication and the Microsoft Graph; and compute power for larger machine-learning models. A slide from her 2018 talk showing the overall Microsoft inking model, including the cloud inking components is embedded in this post above.

Microsoft's infusion of inking with more AI capabilities fits in with its quest to broaden the input methods available to its users to include natural language, images, speech and other methods.

Speaking of Build 2019, it looks like Microsoft also will be unveiling its promised Windows Insider application (which will be a Progressive Web App), codenamed "Catnip." According to a Build session entitled "Windows Insider Program for Developers," Microsoft will show off Catnip and provide attendees with a chance to contribute to its development and give feedback about the app.

The Insider Program for Developers session is going to focus on ways the Insider program can help developers get more feedback on their applications by having it integrated into the Insider Feedback Hub, according to the session description.

Build 2019 will be happening from May 6 to 9 in Seattle.

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