By Akshay Asija
Google has never shied away from making multiple apps or services that have similar functionality. The company has built competing alternatives for almost all of its popular services in the past, with the belief that at least one of those will be a success. Google’s myriad messaging/communication apps are perhaps the best example of this duplicate app strategy. At present, Allo, Hangouts, Android Messages, and Spaces (remember that?) are Google’s attempts at making a good instant messaging application.
Google’s research in photography
It comes as no surprise then, that the company launched not one, but three photography apps this month. Notably, these apps, called Storyboard, Selfissimo! and Scrubbies, are developed by Google’s research arm, using technology that is still in the experimental stages. These apps employ up-and-coming technologies like object recognition, person segmentation, stylisation algorithms, and newer image encoding and decoding technologies. Last year, Google’s research division also developed Motion Stills, an app that converts short videos (and Apple’s Live Photos) “into cinemagraphs and time lapses using experimental stabilization and rendering technologies”. Researchers at Google acknowledge that this trio of new apps is not exactly built for usage at the scale of mass apps like Google Photos and Snapseed and, to that end, refer to these as “appsperiments”.
The first app, Storyboard, is currently only available for Android devices. It converts videos into single-page comic layouts, à la Prisma. While Prisma could only apply such effects to photos, Storyboard takes this technique a step further with video. The app automatically selects relevant video frames, lays them out, and applies either of six styles to those. According to Google, there can be 1.6 trillion different ways of styling a video this way.
Selfissimo!, available for iOS and Android, is an automated selfie app that takes black and white photos every time the user poses. Using the app is simple – tapping the screen starts a “photoshoot”. Once the user stops posing and moving, the captures a photo. Tapping the screen again ends the photo session and creates a contact sheet. The user can then save individual images or the entire shoot.
The third app is an iOS exclusive, Scrubbies. It lets the user manipulate the speed and direction of video playback to create video loops that can focus on certain actions, capture funny faces, and replay certain instants. While apps like Instagram’s Boomerang can create small looping videos from user-defined portions of larger videos, Scrubbies gives the uses much greater control. Google encourages users to “remix” the videos playing in the app by swiping on the screen and “scratching it like a D.J.” Scrubbing with one finger plays the video while doing it with two fingers captures the playback for saving and sharing.
The new apps are interesting not just because of their features, but because of the way these are developed, i.e. by using data provided by the end users. By releasing experimental, AI-based features as separate apps, Google ensures that it is able to test its algorithms and improve them using real-world data. At the same time, it keeps its users optimistic and engaged in using Google’s suite of apps and services.
Storyboard, Selfissimo!, and Scrubbies, while unique, would have made even more sense if these were part of a larger app. However, just like the ability to edit live video in Motion Stills eventually made its way to the core Google Photos app, it is possible that after some user testing and feedback, these appsperiments are merged with Google Photos too. The only thing that is certain is that Google’s machine learning prowess is going to change mobile photography, forever.
Featured Image Source: Pexels