Detexify

November 18th, 2011 by Chris

For documentation I do at work I occasionally use LaTex to format formulas for display or print. Like most markup languages, LaTex is extremely powerful, but requires a certain level of programmer-esque skills to use. I use it rather infrequently, so I’m constantly looking at various sources for reference on how to make a certain symbol or format a certain function.

This is a classic example of when a typical text based (e.g. Google) search falls short. How do you search for a symbol who’s name you don’t really know… or has such a common name that it’s hard to distinguish the one you want?

Well Daniel Kirsch made it happen. Today wasn’t the first time I used Detexify but in a moment of work avoidance I played around with it a bit more than I had in the past.

Here’s an example of what it does:

So yeah, you draw a little skull and cross-bones and it uses the power of some kind of (probably) neural net examination and finds the symbol you needed.[1] Try it out, it’s sort-of fun just to play with. You can also go to the symbols page and pick one to ‘train’. You then draw the image by hand (mouse?) and it adds it to its training pool.

He’s working on a new version that also does Unicode characters. It will also offload some of the searching by running the algorithm on the client side using Java. Pretty impressive that such a search can be done in a reasonable amount of time using Java in a web browser.

  1. No, I did not have a particular reason to put this symbol in my documentation… but boy did I want to find one! []

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