“Not another photo-sharing app!” is an oft-heard or tweeted phrase. After Instagram combined the power of a networked camera, nostalgic filters, and snappy sharing to various networks to create a mobile phenomenon before selling to Facebook, and after SnapChat created a new behavior with more private photosharing that never touched the web (or Facebook), a new iPhone photosharing app is taking over my Twitter feed and, I believe, it’s just a matter of time before it takes over yours, too.
By now you may have heard of Frontback, the app that combines one shot from the regular iPhone camera with one shot from the front-facing camera to create one image showing what you’re seeing on top with a self-portrait of you at the bottom. It appears Frontback is a project born from Checkthis, a NYC-based company that hasn’t raised much funding. Frontback sounds simple enough, and yet that may be all that’s needed to quickly grow. A few months ago, TechCrunch’s Romain Dillet wrote a piece about the app, and since then, investors from Lerer Ventures began using the app a lot (how I noticed it), and then MG Siegler posted about it on his blog (he’s usually right on the money for new photo apps), and then…I was hooked.
The front-facing camera hasn’t been leveraged by most photo apps. Yes, there’s SnapChat, but it took a bit longer for the quality of the front-facing camera on the iPhone to be close to the regular (back) camera. In this video discussion I recorded with K9 Ventures’ Manu Kumar, an expert in computer vision and a prolific investor in such startups, he discusses how it’s usually changes in mobile hardware that opens the doors for software developers to build new experiences. (For instance, future mobile phones may include depth-sensing cameras to record and recognize gestures.)
Before Frontback, Daily Booth tried to leverage the front-facing camera, but it was too early. Back in 2010, MG wrote a great piece on TechCrunch about a talk given by Brian Pokorny, who back then built Daily Booth (which also used the front-facing camera). In the talk, Pokorny talks about how most mobile photosharing apps use the regular camera and focus on “objects,” but the front-facing camera focuses on the cameraman and camerawoman, thereby creating an image which can be immediately engaging for an audience.
Frontback’s in-the-moment images are unblemished by filters and create a more intimate, real-time media feel. When I see Frontbacks appear in my Twitter feed or when I’m surfing through the app, the photos shared on the network oftentimes make me feel as if I’m there with the folks I know. Instagram users shared all sorts of images on the network, images taken in the moment, but also images that were saved to the camera roll earlier, images that were lifted from the web or other apps, or even mobile web or phone screenshots. One result of this ability to share any image is that Instagrams often don’t feel intimate or real-time, whereas Frontbacks mostly do.
“Selfies” have gone mainstream after SnapChat and people love seeing and sharing themselves on camera. Not to be taken the wrong way, though I’m sure Frontback will have its own Chatroulette moment, the up-and-coming generations not only communicate mostly through images and pictures, they want to be in the shots they’re taking as well. One of my favorite creative and commercial applications of this was the brilliant Snoopify app by Snoop Lion, which is a clever app to jazz up your pictures with Snoop stickers, some of which now sell for $99!
Word-of-mouth virality happens when people use it with friends and show their friends the app, right there, live and in person. This is the “soft” part of what makes the app special. I can’t prove it with data, but can only say that when I’m with friends or my family and take a Frontback, I immediately show it to them and they all light up. Just today, a friend who just bought his first iPhone ever and doesn’t really use apps remarked to me, upon seeing an image I created: “that’s clever.”
It is indeed clever, and I suspect many users feel the same way. Now as summer ends, and people come back from vacation, or settle into campus, an app like Frontback is positioned to grow quite fast if the stars align (and if it can release an Android version quickly before it’s copied). And for those who bemoan photo apps, I’ll share a quote from Elon Musk earlier this year at D11: “I actually am not dismissive of things like photosharing apps. There’s a lot of things that provide a small amount of value to a lot of people…Sharing with friends and family is great; if that puts a high value on a company, so be it.”