Today, Instagram is lifting the veil on Hyperlapse, one of the company’s first apps outside of Instagram itself. Using clever algorithm processing, the app makes it easy to use your phone to create tracking shots and fast, time-lapse videos that look as if they’re shot by Scorsese or Michael Mann. What was once only possible with a Steadicam or a $15,000 tracking rig is now possible on your iPhone, for free. (Instagram hopes to develop an Android version soon, but that will require changes to the camera and gyroscope APIs on Android phones.) And that’s all thanks to some clever engineering and an elegantly pared-down interaction design. The product team shared its story with WIRED.
By day, Thomas Dimson quietly works on Instagram’s data, trying to understand how people connect and spread content using the service. Like a lot of people working at the company, he’s also a photo and movie geek — and one of his longest-held affections has been for Baraka, an art-house ode to humanity that features epic tracking shots of peoples all across the world.
“It was my senior year, and my friend who was an architect said, ‘You have to see it, it will blow you away,’ ” Dimson says. He wasn’t entirely convinced. The movie, after all, was famous for lacking any narration or plot. But watching the film in his basement, Dimson was awestruck. “Ever since, it’s always been in the back of my mind,” he says.
A sample shot from Baraka.
By 2013, Dimson was at Instagram. That put him back in touch with Alex Karpenko, a friend from Stanford who had sold his startup to Instagram in 2013. Karpenko and his firm, Luma, had created the first-ever image-stabilization technology for smartphone videos. That was obviously useful to Instagram, and the company quickly deployed it to improve video capture within the app. But Dimson realized that it had far greater creative potential. Karpenko’s technology could be used to shoot videos akin to all those shots in Baraka. “It would have hurt me not to work on this,” says Dimson.
The insight that powered Karpenko’s algorithms began, like so many other startup ideas, as a Ph.D. thesis at Stanford. This was 2010, and the iPhone 4 had come out: one of the first phones that could capture HD video. That sounded terrific in theory, but cramming such a great video camera onto a handheld device meant that the videos themselves were often shaky to the point of being unwatchable. “They were all just crappy,” Karpenko says.
He knew that image stabilization was the answer, but the technologies of that time, which you’d find in Final Cut and myriad other video editing programs, were simply unworkable for smartphones. Why? Imagine a video clip taken from a moving car. To even the juddering camera motion, image stabilization algorithms typically analyze a movie frame by frame, identifying image fragments common to each. By recording how those shared points jump around across frames, the algorithms can then infer how the camera has been moving. By reverse-engineering that motion data, software can recreate a new, steadier version of a film clip. Yet every step in that process requires processing muscle. That’s fine for a movie studio, which has massive computers that crank overnight to re-render a scene. It’s ridiculous for a smartphone.
Left to right: product designer Chris Connolly, and software engineers Thomas Dimson and Alex Karpenko. (Ariel Zambelich/WIRED)
Inspired by a demo in which he saw gyroscopes attached to cameras to de-blur their images, Karpenko had an “aha” moment: Smartphones didn’t have nearly enough power to replicate video-editing software, but they did have built-in gyroscopes. On a smartphone, instead of using power-hungry algorithms to model the camera’s movement, he could measure it directly. And he could funnel those measurements through a simpler algorithm that could map one frame to the next, giving the illusion that the camera was being held steady. He mocked up a simple demo, and filmed a dot on his wall, while making his hand shake. “The images in the test matched up almost exactly, and that’s when I knew this was doable,” Karpenko says.
Surfacing the company’s good ideas
Dimson eventually cajoled Karpenko into ginning up a prototype app that wouldn’t just improve the shakiness in your typical handheld videos, but was also robust enough that you could run around with it and still have the camera look like it was still. Usually, such prototypes are gawky, barely functioning things whose possibilities require a dollop of imagination. Dimson says this one was different. “We were blown away by how well it worked,” he says.
Eventually the duo uploaded video of the app in action to Instagram’s internal message board, where it received the ultimate blessing: a single comment from Instagram co-founder and CEO, Kevin Systrom. It simply declared, “This is cool.” This, in turn, egged them on to present their project to the wider group, at the company’s first “pitch-a-thon” for new creative tools, held last January. (Many of Instagram’s new features are the result of that meeting, including the sliders that allow you to dial in the strength of each filter.)
The only choices you make in the Hyperlapse UI are the speed of replay and whether to save your video. (Instagram)
Once Dimson had the go-ahead to share a beta of Hyperlapse among Instagram employees, it caught fire — so much so that Dimson began to rue waking up every morning and having to dutifully “like” the hundreds of videos that his co-workers were posting. “Honestly, we’re really surprised this thing didn’t leak out, given how obsessed people were with using it,” says Gabe Madway, a spokesman for the company.
If Hyperlapse is so cool, it makes you wonder why it’s built as a standalone app, rather than a new feature of Instagram. That had to do with the realities of building something really cool but also fairly hard to explain. The honchos at Instagram figured some users would grok the possibilities immediately and become obsessed with it. But most would ignore it. To built it into Instagram, you’d have to hide it, to keep the core app simple for its millions of users. This would be a double bind for Hyperlapse: Power users would find it annoying to use, if they found it at all, and everyday users would simply never look for it. So they split it off into its own product. “We didn’t want to create a special use that would just be hidden,” says Mike Krieger, Instagram’s co-founder and CTO.
The only filter is speed
The elegantly bare UX belies the complexity of both what’s going on in the app and what it replaces.
The first screen has only a Record button. Once you’re done recording, the only thing you can do is choose what speed you want your video to run — the slider goes from 1x to 12x. Once that’s set, you can share the video directly to Facebook or Instagram. This simplicity came early to the product. Chris Connolly, the designer who Dimson had rallied to his cause, recognized immediately that for all the fussy UI detail, one function mattered above all: replay speed. Fooling with that speed made some videos zippy that could be boring; others comic that could be dull; and others poetic that had once simply been neat-o.
Once you start using the app, you quickly see that replay speed itself becomes a novel, alluring tool: For pets and people, replaying at about 1x gives you the sense that you’re creating a tracking shot like that Copacabana scene in Goodfellas. The higher replay speeds work better for shooting the sky out your airplane window, the scenery scrolling past during a train ride, or anything else that’s moving slowly or at a distance. Where Instagram’s filters are all about changing color and light, Hyperlapse uses a simple speed slider as its main creative decision.
All of those choices must be built-in up front with traditional camera rigs. Usually, capturing even a brief tracking shot requires intricate choreography between where you’ll move with the camera and what your subjects will be doing when you film them. Time-lapse setups are even more intense, requiring a camera to be set up on a track and programmed to move at a steady speed. Both of those art forms are hardly spontaneous, and spontaneity is supposed to be Instagram’s calling card.
Hyperlapse, by contrast, lets you create a tracking shot in less than a minute. “This is an app that lets you be in the moment in a different way,” says Krieger. “We did that by taking a pretty complicated image processing idea and reducing it to a single slider. That’s super Instagram-y.”
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