“Show your work” has long been the math teacher’s mantra. Making students write down each step of a math problem prevents them from merely flipping to the back of their textbook to source the correct answer. But there’s a new shortcut to math problems that gets around that constraint: a free app that solves a math problem and shows the user all the steps. All a student has to do is aim the camera toward the question.
The camera captures the equation, solves it, and the user has the option to look at the steps. The app, called PhotoMath, is free for iOS and Windows phones, and will likely be available on Android in early 2015, according to its website. On the one hand it’s a useful tool for students who need a nudge in the right direction. On the other hand, it isn’t a stretch to envision kids sneaking a phone into the classroom on test day, turning the app into a high-tech crib sheet.
The app uses text recognition technology to find the components of the expression, combined with a human-like problem solving capability, explained the company’s founder Jurica Cerovec at the TechCrunch Disrupt Europe event in London. The app can currently help students in solving relatively simple equations and fractions.
MicroBlink, the company behind the app, envisions it as a math aid for kids who don’t have access to a tutor or to individualized attention at schools, or for parents who need help advising their kids on math homework. A company spokesperson told Quartz its intention isn’t for the app to be used as a cheating device.
Eventually, MicroBlink wants to apply the technology to PDF scanning, online banking, and anything that needs to be read and analyzed. In the meantime, children without access to tutors or close classroom supervision will have an automated math aid—or an easy way to cut corners.