All posts in “photo apps”

Microsoft acqui-hires cinemagraphic photo app Swng


Computer vision and clever imaging technology remain hot areas in consumer and enterprise apps, and today Microsoft is picking up a startup called Swng Technologies to give it some IP and talent in this department.

Swng Technologies had developed a cinemagraph app called Swng (originally called Polaroid Swing) that lets you take impressionistic, GIF-like short videos that you can then ‘move’ buy dragging your finger or a mouse across them. The startup’s team will be joining Microsoft’s Skype division, the companies said today.

Skype may be known more as an app that lets you make voice and video calls, but it has been revamping itself as a more enhanced messaging and chat app, with a Cortana integration and a Snapchat-inspired makeover earlier this year. It’s not clear exactly what Swng will be doing at Microsoft.

The terms of the deal are not being disclosed, but from what I understand, the app will continue to live on for the time being. Swng was a small company that had around 10 employees including ex-Apple engineers and computer vision specialists from MIT among its staff when it launched last year. It’s not clear how many of them are still with the startup, or which employees will be joining Microsoft.

The news marks the end of an interesting journey for the startup. Co-founders Tommy Stadlen and Frederick Bladford had very little startup experience — and no technical experience — when they met Twitter co-founder Biz Stone and came up with the idea of a cinemagraphic app.

Stone was so enthusiastic about the concept that he invested in the startup, became its chairman, and even travelled to Minnesota to ask PLR, who had been the owners of Polaroid’s IP at the time, for permission to use the brand in the app.

(Stone’s excitement proved to be infectious: PLR subsequently became an investor in the app. As did Lloyd Dorfman, the founder of Travelex, among other undisclosed investors.)

The app launched in 2016 very much with Polaroid branding on its sleeve, promising to bring the name back from the photographic graveyard by using it prominently in its ambitious app.

“Polaroid Swing has the potential to change the way we think about images, just like Twitter’s 140 characters changed how we think about words,” said Stone at the time. “People will start seeing the world in one-second moments. It’s a genre-defining medium.”

Stone was not the only name associated with the app. Cole Rise, the photographer who helped build early filters for Instagram, also helped design Swng and once held the role of chief creative officer.

But in these days of fast-changing tastes, not every app is a rocket, and while Polaroid Swing saw some early success, it couldn’t sustain that.

It may not have helped that Polaroid Swing had to rebrand. In May of this year, the Polaroid IP was acquired by the largest shareholder of the Impossible Project, which was on its own Polaroid mission, to start to produce the cameras and film once again.

That led to the new owner pulling the Polaroid name from various places where it had been licensed, and so Polaroid Swing became Swng.

App analytics firm Apptopia estimates that lifetime downloads of the app have been about 500,000. It averaged about 60,000 monthly active users the first three months of launch, “but the last three have averaged about one-third of that.”

Microsoft, and specifically Skype, will give the Swng team a chance to try to build at significantly more scale.

“This is a unique opportunity for the team to bring our ideas to a global audience,” said Tommy Stadlen, Co-Founder of Swing Technologies, in a statement. “It’s an exciting time to join Microsoft, which is thriving under the leadership of Satya Nadella. We believe in the power of brands and technology, so the Skype mission and values resonate strongly with us.”

On Microsoft’s side, its acquisition track record over the last several years has largely been focused around the company’s enterprise and cloud businesses (its acquisitions of Minecraft-maker Mojang and Altspace VR are two exceptions).

And while it seems that, for now, Microsoft has decided to stop trying to build a blockbuster smartphone, it has continued to work on ways of keeping its hat in the mobile game, through apps.

In the case of photo apps, for Microsoft so far these have been mainly in-house efforts, such as Pix, Sprinkles, and Face Swap — three camera and imaging apps that tap into the company’s AI smarts.

Now, it seems, we can add Swng’s experience and smarts to that list.

“The Swing team’s deep expertise in imaging technology will help us deliver great new features and capabilities for Skype,” said Microsoft’s VP for Skype, Amritansh Raghav, in a statement. “They have an impressive track record of delivering great user experiences and brand design around the technology they develop. I welcome the new team members and am excited about how Swing will deliver innovation to our customers.”

This app allows you to try on lipsticks from every brand you’ve ever had your eye on

Who needs to try on lipstick IRL when you can do it without leaving your room?

You might remember Meitu, the selfie-editing app that brought you some of these amazing transformations: 

Image: SAMSTRYKER/TWITTER AND MASHABLE COMPOSITE

It’s now making a serious play for the world of luxury cosmetics, with the launch of a new virtual lipstick counter which is aptly named — you guessed it — Counter, on its MakeUp Plus app (available for iOS and Android).

Just select the colour you want, point the camera at yourself — and you’ll be able to choose your perfect shade. 

The best part? You can actually buy the lipsticks when you’re done.

Meitu’s teamed up with brands like Bobbi Brown, Lancome, Clinique and YSL — so you can get the exact same shade you see on the app IRL.

Image: meitu/supplied

Depending on where you are in the world, you’ll see different brands. 

If you’re in the U.S. for example, you’ll see brands like Pixel Cosmetics, GlamGlow, Stila, and Clarins that are more popular stateside.

People in Asia-Pacific on the other hand can get a glimpse of local brands like The Face Shop, I’m Meme, and Pony Effect.

You can also easily change your region if you decide you want to try out stuff from a different brand.

Image: meitu/supplied

Chinese company Meitu has a huge following in Asia, especially in China, where selfies have become a multi-million dollar business.

The company adds that the Counter component of the app marks the first time Meitu has worked with brands outside of China to deliver a product to international users. 

According to the company, Meitu has more than 450 million monthly active users worldwide, and generates a staggering six billion photos and videos each month. 

Now that is a lot in potential lipstick sales. 

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Microsoft Pix can now turn your iPhone photos into art, thanks to artificial intelligence


Microsoft is rolling out an update to its AI-powered photo editing app, Microsoft Pix, that aims to give Prisma and others like it some new competition. While the app was originally designed to enhance your iPhone photos by tweaking things like color, exposure and other variables, the newly updated Microsoft Pix will now let you have a little more fun with your photos, too – this time, by turning them into art.

Similar to Prisma, the new app introduces a feature called Pix Styles, which allows you to transform your photos into works of art, and use other effects. For example, one effect will make the picture look like it’s on fire. These are not photo filters, to be clear – the styles actually transfer texture, pattern and tones to the photo, explains Microsoft.

The app launches today with 11 styles included, but more will be added in the weeks ahead, the company says.

Also like Prisma, you can swipe your finger across the style to increase or reduce the effect. When you’re done, you can frame the photo, crop it, or share it out to social networks, as before.

Another new feature – Pix Paintings – takes a step beyond Prisma, Lucid, Pikazo, Dreamscope and other “photo-to-art” apps, as it lets you see a time-lapse of the photo being painted in the artistic style you selected. This is more entertaining than it is practical, but it’s a nifty trick.

Microsoft says that the new features were developed in collaboration with Microsoft’s Asia research lab and Skype, and leverage an A.I. processing approach called deep neural networks. This is what’s used to train large datasets. For Pix, that means lots of paintings were used to train the A.I. in order to learn the various styles.

It’s also the same technology that Google experimented with in order to produce a new kind of trippy, machine-created art – some of which it showed off at an exhibit last year.

“These are meant to be fun features,” said Josh Weisberg, a principal program manager in the Computational Photography Group within Microsoft’s research organization in Redmond, in an announcement. “In the past, a lot of our efforts were focused on using AI and deep learning to capture better moments and better image quality. This is more about fun. I want to do something cool and artistic with my photos,” he says.

Also worth noting is that these new features can be used without tapping into your phone’s data plan, or while your phone is offline. That’s because Pix works directly on your device itself to run its calculations – it doesn’t need to access the cloud. This is part of a broader effort at Microsoft to shift A.I. from the cloud to devices at the edge of the network, the company says.

The app is a free download on the App Store. 

Photo-blending app Dubble is back from the dead

“I have no idea why I stuck at it,” says Adam Scott, co-founder of photo blending app Dubble, which is officially (re)launching today, in an overhauled v2, following a year-long hiatus off the app store while the team re-engineered the backend and applied some gloss and community-requested features to the front.

The original MVP of Dubble launched on iOS all the way back in fall 2013 — at a time when Frontback was still splicing up people’s selfies. When I tested it out then Dubble-blended photos felt organic and interesting (I still use one of its serendipitously dreamy hybrid cityscapes for the header on my Twitter profile), but the app was also rough round the edges, slow to process images and saddled with a clunky UI.

Since that debut, faddish photo-sharing community Frontback has failed to go the distance, though selfie-taking and photo sharing of course persist. Photo filtering trends also continue to evolve — they now include, for example, AI-powered style transfer apps, like Prisma, which can turn a boring snap into a mock work of art at the push of a button.

So will there still be much of an appetite for manually blending photos with other people’s selfies and snaps to co-create and share digital double exposures? Frankly, Scott doesn’t seem entirely sure. But he says he’s hopeful there’s a niche yet engaged community to be created here — and a sustainable one, given the reach of smartphone apps. “Within a year I would like to hit maybe 20,000 to 30,000 daily active users,” he says of Dubble v2. “I think this is a good goal.”

Here’s a few I dubbled earlier… 

The original Dubble app amassed a registered user base of around 270,000 users over its run, before cloud-hosting costs forced the by-then bootstrapping team to take it offline, having burnt through their friends and family seed round, and while they re-engineered a leaner and faster v2 — helped with advice and contacts made after being selected for Newcastle-based accelerator Ignite, completing that bootcamp program in early 2015.

The new version of the app lets users choose who to Dubble their single photos with — via a new feature called ‘Dubble with me’ — rather than this only being randomly selected, as it was in v1. Scott’s hope is that this selective ability for co-creation will be the key to scaling an engaged community. And while he concedes there are plenty of other double exposure apps out there, he argues social focus sets Dubble apart. So the aim is to build a sharing community, not just offer another photo-processing tool. Which means, as before, users of the app can choose to publish their co-creations to a public feed where others can find them.

Another feature that’s new in v2 is the ability to lightly edit a dubble to make it a bit lighter or darker — which again gives users a little more control over the resulting creation. While an overhauled remix section, now called the Lab, is where the random dubbling takes place, with users choosing singles from their own photo roll, editing them lightly if they wish before tapping through to the blending screen to see the first random remix. If you don’t like the result, there’s a redubble button that can be used 30 times in 24 hours to freely remix with other random singles (an in-app paid upgrade delivers unlimited redubbling).

Amusingly for a photo app there’s no camera view — Scott says they removed this as most people were selecting pre-shot photos to dubble anyway but also they wanted to create a quality bar, and stop users snapping boring test photos of their computer keyboard and polluting the singles pool. After all, every single uploaded to the app has the chance to be reused again and again — to create other Dubbles.

Elsewhere in the app, a Discover tab shows a manually curated feed of content, and gives users a visual way to track down other (unknown) users to Dubble with. Each user profile in the app has a ‘Dubble with me’ button to enable that. Users can also obviously choose to blend their photos with their friends/followers’ content, too, via the same route.

And while such overtly arty photo-blending might be too hipster to excite much mainstream interest, the huge scale of the global smartphone market does at least offer the chance for Dubble to locate and connect enough fellow feelers to turn a niche interest into a financially self-sustaining business down the line. Plus the app undeniably offers a super easy way to repurpose the raw material every single smartphone user has languishing on their camera rolls: photos, lots and lots of photos — turning what can be mundane shots into imagery that’s at turns surreal and ethereal. And that’s potentially pretty powerful.

Scott says the plan is to try to generate uplift now, for v2, by getting the app on the radar of influential photographers with large followings on social-sharing platforms like Instagram — tapping them to ask their fans to remix their photos via Dubble, as well as targeting relevant online photo-focused communities. He says he’s willing to give his belief that there’s a sustainable business to be built from Dubble another year at this point, some 2.5+ years of development work in.

“I understand that [Dubble] is not a mass market product — I get that. But not mass market is huge still, because of the mobile phone usage. And I think that if we can just build a really good, hardcore user base it won’t matter that we’re not Snapchat, or Instagram. I don’t want to be! If I go on Instagram I get depressed now,” he tells TechCrunch, flipping over to his Instagram feed and providing a disparaging commentary on the thumbnails sliding past.

“I like VSCO’s model,” he adds. “I don’t know how many users they have because they don’t seem to publish it but they’re a multi-multi million dollar company.”

He finally describes sticking with Dubble as “a labour of love”. Although in the space of the same interview he brands it as “one of the worst things I’ve ever done” — so, fittingly, there’s a dual reality to his startup experience, as harsher realities have been superimposed across founding passions.

Scott has blogged at length about the highs and lows of sticking with and bootstrapping Dubble here — and it’s clear there have been some tough times for him personally, not least as he says he’s an ideas man, and being “stuck” trying to fix Dubble meant putting other ideas on ice. Surely a feeling a lot of entrepreneurs will identify with, although so too is the urge to finish something that’s been started. And so Dubble lives again — for now. Even if Scott has a more conflicted relationship with the smartphone camera that he used to, back when it was just enthusiasm for taking creative photos that was driving development of the app.

“I try not to use my phone,” he says, wondering aloud whether people are still enthusiastically taking photos for the art of it. “I’m sick of my phone. It’s not in my bedroom and I know habits have changed. I look at the way people use photography now and I just get clinically depressed. I’m a professional photographer and I see what’s happening — and it’s not good.”

The distributed team of co-founders that remains tenaciously stuck to Dubble is now a trio: ideas man Scott, mobile dev Uldis and backend dev Phil — the latter a newer addition joining after an introduction, via Ignite, and after the other two original co-founders had moved on (or drifted off) to other less sticky things.

As well as sticking around and putting in so much sweat equity, Scott has also put in some of his own money to get v2 launched, and has been able to keep afloat personally with help from some other businesses he runs, including renting out a property in London — having moved his family to Barcelona. The new version is also far more efficient to run than v1, thanks to (he says) Phil’s backend wizardry. The team has also benefited financially from Ignite’s help in applying for R&D tax credits via UK government schemes — meaning they were able to get back some of the seed money they’d burnt through to help them continue developing.

Double, double, toil and trouble

They also have two other (previously launched) related apps with some revenue generating potential: Dubble Studio: for people wanting to just remix their own shots to create double exposures, with a paid version for unlimited use; and Dubble Print, a revenue-share app partnership with a print company that lets users order physical photo prints and other items personalized with their photos. (Though Scott notes Dubble won’t start taking any revenue from the latter app until next month.)

At this point he says they can’t even afford to email the circa 50,000 most engaged users whose emails they’ve retained from v1 of the original Dubble app. (He says they’ll maybe do this in freebie batches, groaning that “email marketing is expensive!”).