Ex-Google employee turns attention to ‘living photos’ with new mobile app

Looking at a close-up photograph by Jamie Beck, the first thing you might notice is the woman’s hot-pink lipstick.

Framed so you only see from her upper lip down to a pearl necklace, blurred by the shallow depth of the field, the next thing you’ll notice is a piece of jewelry she’s biting. Then your eye will drift down to the dangling pendant, and you’ll notice its moving – swaying back and forth slightly – and that’s when you realize it’s not a photograph at all, nor a video. It’s a Cinemagraph.

The creation of New York duo, visual graphics artist Kevin Burg and photographer Jamie Beck, the medium takes the 25-year-old animated GIF and elevates it to an art form. Trademarked as Cinemagraphs, the images are mostly still, but feature a small section of movement. The impact on the audience is similar to that of a human statue that who suddenly readjusts to a new pose – it makes you look twice. Now mobile app developers are exploring how smartphones can be used by the masses to play with the medium, including two Toronto-based firms.

A Cinemagraph by Kevin Burg and Jamie Beck. Click for larger image.

Toronto-based Flixel Photos Inc. released its free iPhone app in April and hit 100,000 users in the first 20 days, says co-founder and chief marketing officer Mark Homza. The firm then collected user feedback and reassessed its app, changing it to improve the user experience. Flixel 2.0 was released July 25, described by Homza as a complete refresh of the platform.

“The application is simple and intuitive enough that anyone can use it,” he says. “For the users that want to explore this new art form… we provide a seamless editing suite that allows you to emulate what Beck and Burg do in several hours in a matter of minutes.”

Flixel’s app is a similar approach to Instagram. Users can share their animated photos with others on Flixel’s own network, or post it to other social networks including Facebook and Twitter. To create the images, users take a short video and then use their finger to paint the area they want to be animated, while the rest of the frame remains frozen. Flixel competes other iPhone apps that created Cinemagraph-inspired images such as Cinemagram and Kinotopic.

On Google’s Android platform, there’s just one app, fotodanz, that is available to do the same thing. That’s a hole that Alex Kennberg, the founder of Toronto-based Free Point Inc., thinks he can turn into an advantage. Formerly a software engineer with Google, where he worked on Google Buzz and Gmail before his most recent role as tech lead overseeing the Google+ mobile app, Kennberg’s next project is his new startup and its app, Pictoreo.

Flixel’s “Life isn’t still” video is created entirely with Cinemagraph-style images.

“I learned a tremendous about about bleeding edge development” at Google, Kennberg says. “One of the key metrics for us is how long does it take for a user to go from recording a video all the way to sharing it. The quicker we can make that for the user, they more they’ll want to use it.”

Google taught him to prioritize user experience and speed, the University of Waterloo graduate says. Cinemagraphs are ideal for the low attention-span of Internet surfers because they don’t take as long to watch as a video, but they are more dynamic than a static image.

The term “Cinemagraph” is trademarked by Burg and Beck. According to a background kit for journalists, they are making a business out of the art form by creating Cinemgraphs for clients. They don’t licence the use of existing Cinemagraphs for online usage. The team also acknowledges that the format is ideal for mobile devices such as the iPad and call it the first “digital-based-for-digital use-only art form.”

Since both tablets and smartphone give users the ability to shoot video, edit it with an app, and then share it via Internet connectivity, the mobile devices are a perfect playground for Cinemagraph creation. “The fun is in testing the boundaries of mobile photography,” Homza says.

There’s no issues for Flixel around the trademarked term, Homza says. Flixel describes its app as being inspired by Cinemagraphs.

An animated GIF image created with Flixel.

“What we produce are highly stylized GIFs,” Homza says. “If anything, we’re paying homage to the artform. We’re supporting the movement by attempting to make it accessible to the masses.”

Flixel’s business plan isn’t totally clear yet, the co-founder says. The free app is currently focusing on building its user base. A large network of users would be important for any revenue generation in the future, such as selling advertising.

Kennberg’s plan for Pictoreo is also to release it for free. Once he amasses enough users, he sees opportunities to host brand-sponsored contests on his network. There could also be an opportunity for the user community to sell their creations.

The ex-Google employee plans to launch a beta version of his app next week and release it to Google Play by the end of August. He’s planning to reach out to Toronto-area colleges to see if students and teachers are interested in working with the new art form.

There’s a lot of education work to do to make the public aware of the new medium, Kennberg says. But he’s betting that once people have a look, they won’t be able to look away.

Brian JacksonBrian Jackson is the Editor at ITBusiness.ca. E-mail him at bjackson@itbusiness.ca, follow him on Twitter, connect on , read his blog, and check out the IT Business Facebook Page.

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