Smart Canvasses

The Microsoft Math graphing calculator folks have created a Word 2007 add-in that lets you simplify, solve, calculate, and graph your equations in 2-D or 3-D. With it installed, your technical paper becomes alive. For example, your paper may have graphs of the formulae, but a reader wants graphs for different sets of parameters. She just right clicks on a formula and a context menu appears that includes options that Microsoft Math is able to perform on the formula. Select an option and a window appears with the results and offers the possibility to insert them into your Word document.

A side note is that the math displayed in the window is rendered by RichEdit. The math displayed in Word is rendered by Word. Of course, both programs use the LineServices math handler, so the rendering quality is almost identical.

This certainly isn’t the first time such a “smart canvas” was created with computational capabilities. Mathematica works in a similar way and offers considerably greater computational and graphical power. But it’s relatively specialized and expensive and the mathematical typography isn’t as good. Note that the approach used by Microsoft Math could be used by a Mathematica, MapleSoft, MathCad, etc., add–in, and hopefully such add–ins will be created. Then you could have the power of a Mathematica with the math typography and environment of Word 2007. It would be cool to generalize the approach so that any math engine could work seamlessly with a variety of Microsoft Office applications and Internet Explorer.

It’s very exciting. With the math add-in, students can learn math interactively as well as document their results using Word 2007. Professionals can carry out their R&D on screen in Word and ship off their publications as active documents. People reading the publications can click on formulas and obtain graphs for the scenarios they’re interested in or have steps in derivations filled in. Smart canvasses promise to revolutionize the way people learn mathematics as well as to streamline the production of technical results by professionals.