Instagram doesn’t want its feed getting stale, but doesn’t want to bloat its app with extra features either. So today it’s launching Boomerang on iOS and Android. It’s a dead-simple app where you shoot a one-second burst of five photos that are turned into a silent video that plays forwards and then reverses over and over in a loop. Boomerangs are automatically saved to your camera roll, but can easily be shared on Facebook, Instagram, or elsewhere since the app doesn’t have its own feed. The app doesn’t require and Instagram account and you don’t even have to log in.
Boomerang works suspiciously similar to Phhhoto, an upstart Instagram competitor for shooting tiny GIFs that Instagram cut off from its friend-finding feature in April. And the idea of turning burst fires into an animation is reminiscent of the Google Photos animation feature, though you have to shoot Boomerangs in-app. Instagram doesn’t seem afraid to look at what’s exciting photo sharers and see if it can work that into its product, even if it gets called out for copying.
But for the record, this app isn’t much like Vine. It’s more like Apple Live Photos in that in zeroes in on a very specific moment. [Update: And now Snapchat has its own rewind feature, along with new slow-motion and fast-forward video filters.]
You might be asking why we need a 1-second video app if we already have 6-second and 15-second apps. Well, it’s because most people are terrible at scripting videos that are even that long. It’s tough to be boring when you only have 1-second.
Boomerang follows the strategy of Instagram’s previous standalone apps Hyperlapse (time-lapses) and Layout (collages). If it succeeds too, Boomerang could further help spice up Instagram’s five year old feed.
That’s important as Instagram competes for the teen demographic with Snapchat, which is constantly adding fresh features like animated selfie lenses and geofilters to stay dynamic. Hopefully instead of the same old sunsets, lattes, and babies, Boomerang will bring a burst of something new to Instagram.
Though “Babies are really, really fun with Boomerang” the app’s Product Manager John Barnett tells me. The app was originally conceived by a small group of Instagram’s Android engineers at a hackathon in July. “It was something we built just for fun for us to play with as a team” he says. But as the larger group of Instagram employees fell in love with the app, they realized it might be entertaining for the whole world. The core crew who birthed Boomerang was just five people.
The first thing you’ll notice about Boomerang is how few buttons there are. There are literally only two screens. Since you don’t have to log in, you start on the camera.
Tap the shutter button in normal or selfie mode, and Boomerang captures five quick shots over the span of a second. Barnett says the iOS version of the app will actually make things look a little better, as it does image stabilization in a way Android doesn’t allow to keep clips from making you dizzy. Then Boomerang shows you your infinitely looping creation. Instagram speeds up the clip to approximately double-time so the back-and-forth loop goes by in about a second. That slightly fast-fowarded feel makes everything a bit funnier and more stimulating.
You’re given options to slide your Boomerang over to Instagram or Facebook where you can edit and title it. There’s also a More button for sharing to other services through your phone’s operating system. No matter what, Boomerang also conveniently saves the clip as a 4 second video, looping the burst of images back-and-forth 5 times so it can actually be watched on its own. That auto-save means you can immediately go back to recording more bursts if you want. Afterwards, you can do whatever you want with the clips, but they’ll will work best on services like Instagram that automatically loop videos.
Overall, Boomerang felt refreshingly lightweight and delightful. Just a spark of an idea for a gag or action shot, and the app reliably makes an interesting clip. There’s something inherently satisfying about the perfect loops. And Boomerang does a remarkable job focusing in on a condensed moment of humor or beauty that could be deadened by a photo but lost in a video.
Boomerang’s biggest problem is that it’s so lightweight that you might forget about it. It’s not exactly critical to your life, just a nice bonus. On its own Boomerang might fade into the back screens of your phone. But I can imagine remembering to pull it out when I would otherwise shoot an Instagram photo or video. I bet Boomerangs make great Facebook video profile pics, too.
My only feature request would be a countdown option for nailing those little jokes, and Barnett hinted that might come in a future update. A flash would be nice too.
But Boomerang’s simplicity means few will be confused about what they’re supposed to do with it. That’s important considering the younger age and relative app inexperience of many of its users, including some of the 75% that are outside the U.S. Boomerang is the opposite of overwhelming content creation apps like Mixbit that are packed with so many options people abandon them in confusion before ever making anything.
One question will be how much Instagram promotes Boomerang. It’s boosted downloads of Layout by linking to its download page from the Instagram editing screen that’s constantly seen by the big app’s 400 million monthly users. You could imagine a similar button for Boomerang on the Instagram video camera screen.
[Update: Looks like Instagram will include a “Made with Boomerang” link on posts in its feed, so when people see a cool loop, they’ll be able to instantly download and make their own. Smart.]
Instagram seems to be having better luck with its standalone app strategy than its parent company. Facebook experiments with new functionality in standalone apps that have little to do with Facebook itself, and then brings back the best stuff to its main app. But several of Facebook’s apps including Riff, Slingshot, and Rooms have flopped hard, though they incubated features like drawing on photos.
Instagram instead treats standalone apps as external creative tools that feed content directly back into the main app. Rather than burdening Instagram with the bloat of more editing options atop its slew of filters and effects, it only keeps the essentials at hand. If you don’t want the extra tools, you don’t have to use them, but the external apps inject vigor into the feed. That way, even a half decade later, people keep browsing photos and seeing ads in their search to see the world through other people’s eyes.