Ring In The New With Lightt, A Beautifully Intuitive And Musical Video App For iPhone


Anthony Wing Kosner, Contributor

For many people who got new iOS devices over the holidays, figuring out what to do with them is on the resolutions list for the new year. The iPhone has always been much more than a phone, but many of the apps that we clutter our home screens with barely get used. Each new app is, in a sense, a proposition of how to extend the function of the device into your life. It is on this level that the latest version of the Lightt app (3.0) is particularly intriguing.

Lightt refers to itself as “video life,” which is a tipoff that it has higher ambitions than Vine or even Instagram. Instagram has perfected the photo app experience by making the act of creating a picture and sharing it seamless. By incorporating short video capabilities, Twitter’s Vine and Facebook’s Instagram have begun to bring motion into that sharing experience. The brevity of the clips is a key to their sharability. They become, in effect, “moving pictures.”

The ephemeral, quick moment is captured most effectively by Snapchat which lets you be immediate without apparent residue. In naming Snapchat the most important technology of 2013, The Wall Street Journal‘s Farhad Manjoo raises the issue of “an erasable internet.” We will leave aside screen capture and security holes associated with Snapchat and allow that its sudden popularity has raised the issue of what we want to save and what we don’t online.

But even if we don’t want to preserve every trivial moment, surely carrying around a device with the documentary capability of the iPhone every moment should make us consider what kind of record we might want to hold on to in the future. And this is the point at which Lightt’s concept of “video life” enters the conversation. The problem with video documentation is that it is, in general, boring to watch. If you just let the camera roll during Junior’s birthday party you are presuming that someday, somebody (you assume Junior himself) may want to actually watch it. But every moment is not a highlight. By being just a passive collector of moments we accumulate a library of unwatchable footage.

But what if, wondered Lightt’s founder Alex Mostoufi, you could use the app capabilities of the iPhone to create a more active video capture experience? And further, what it you could extend the Instagram model from individual images and short scenes to fully composed short films? Lightt’s goal is to allow you to use the creative techniques of filmmaking in the moment that you are trying to capture. It’s a tall order, but this latest version of the app delivers on them in ways that are more intuitive—and musical—than any other video app available.

The music point is an important one that sets Lightt apart from its competitors and its own previous versions. In Lightt 3.0 you have access to the iTunes library on your device (as well as a small, seasonal selection of free samples provided by the app itself.) This capability has a number of useful effects. First, it allows you to make your soundtrack very particular to your taste and the situation you are capturing. Second, and even more significant, having the structure of musical composition to react to give you immediate access to ideas about visual composition of your video. Instead of just pressing record and letting it run, you find yourself synchronizing with the rhythm of the song, switching your point of view with the chord changes and swapping filters or effects in concert with the dramatic dynamics of the music.

Using songs as soundtracks also encourages a certain kind of duration, the 3-5 minutes of a typical pop song, for instance. Lightt’s freemium pricing model allows you to record up to a minute for free, up to 2 minutes for a one-time charge of $.99 and up to five minutes for a one-time charge of $4.99. So, if users in fact like the music feature the very duration of most songs will be a driver of in-app purchases.

The net effect of this infusion of music into the video making process is to make the final product less boring! And just as a great soundtrack can improve a mediocre movie, the pairing of music and video can create whole new kinds of interest in your “video life.” I have talked with Mostoufi many times over the past year as he and his team have evolved the app. The launch version tried to solve the boredom problem by speeding up the clips by a factor of ten (the “rabbit mode” that is still an option with the playback of Lightt videos.) But the bigger problem that Mostoufi has been trying to solve is how to make it easy and intuitive for people to change their point of view and the quality of the image as they shoot to make the final product more active and engaging.

Lightt 3.0 solves this problem in a number of interesting ways in addition to musical assistance. The first, most obvious feature is the capture button itself. You have to press it—and hold it—to capture video. This simple design decision has a profound impact on how you use the app. It’s analogous to Instagram making sharing be the default. By turning video capture into a continuously conscious act you avoid boredom at its source. Your finger will become bored if you hold a shot too long! Second, Lightt now contains a series of realtime filters and effects that you can toggle on and off as you shoot. It is easy, of course, to go effects-crazy and make your video overly gimmicky, but with a little restraint you can use them to enhance what is interesting about the situation you are capturing. Just the switching between modes and the surprising introduction of a new one at a critical point can have the effect of making the viewer watch more carefully.

Also built into the design of the product is the fact that the the filters or effects you apply while shooting become a permanent part of the capture, but the musical soundtrack does not. You can then add a voiceover or additional music to the clips, as well as trim and rearrange the clips before you publish. You can trim the underlying clips to the soundtrack more precisely and even rearrange the clips and still have them go seamlessly with the music.

And the platform is social not only for sharing the finished products through the app as well as YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and email. but for the creation of videos as well. You can choose to share your individual clips with your friends and it is possible to crowd source long-form videos with contributors around the globe. The tools for making videos are clearer to me than the ones for sharing but I imagine they will continue to evolve and get more intuitive. Performance of the app is not universally wonderful. Video is inherently resource intensive and sending and receiving from the cloud introduces other variables into the mix. From version to version the performance has improved, but it is super-important to the experience of using the app, so with these things no amount of engineering is too much.

Looking down the road, I can imagine that the sum of these features will lead users to try to capture unique combinations of sound, motion and image that can be combined and recombined with ease. What Lightt is attempting is to corral a bunch of the iPhone’s built-in functions to create something like a social camera diary where you can collect the moments of your life and share little aesthetic bundles or whole streams with whomever you choose. This is exactly the kind of hybrid use case that iOS devices are made to facilitate. Lightt works equally well on the iPad (my camera of choice) but I wish that it was easier to begin a video on my iPhone and finish it on my iPad, or vice versa. Since Lightt stores everything in the cloud, this should be possible with a little synching, but I might have to wait for Light 4.0 to get that wish.

Testing Note: The music soundtracks are intended for non-commercial use only. If you share your Lightt videos through YouTube (which is conveniently built into the app) and they contain copyrighted music you will likely get a “matched third party content” copyright notice that will prevent you from monetizing the video. YouTube’s documentation says that these notices are not marks against your account and the only impact seems to be the inability to monetize. YouTube does offer the option to dispute these claims as well.