Lightt App Compresses Time, Collapses Space and Creates A New Kind Of Social Stream

Ever since Facebook bought Instagram for that $1 billion, there has been a defacto challenge among media app makers to see who could make the next (really) big thing. And much of the attention has focused on video, on the assumption that, surely, that is what people want to share.

But for all of the innovation in the video app space, there remains a problem. Shooting video is fun, but watching unedited footage is, for the most part, not. In order to solve this asymmetry, apps have limited the duration of clips, offered Instagram-like filters to make amateur video seem arty and provided snippets of pop songs as soundtrack enhancements. In many ways, apps like SocialCam and Viddy have tried to literally be the Instagram of video.

Percolating through the sharable web, though, is the seed of a radically different idea. The humble animated gif, which has been around now for 25 years, is really a pseudo video. What it lacks in duration it makes up for in concision. And concision is exactly what is missing in video apps. Making animated gif files is easy, but it is an editing process, not an Instagram-like instant gratification.

This is the nub of the problem, life moves fast, and you want to experience it in the moment without the residue of creating homework for later. What if you could capture life as quick animations in real time and be able to share them. That is the starting point for an exciting new app called Lightt (with two “t”s) that is launching this morning.

Lightt is the brainchild of CEO Alex Mostoufi, who founded and sold it to Apple in 2007, President Pam Kramer, former consumer marketing VP at Twitter, and CTO Samuel Sutch, former lead iOS engineer at Yammer. Based in San Francisco, the team has envisioned, in Kramer’s words, the “modern way we want to capture our lives.”

In order to capture “the essence of experience,” Lightt introduces the concept of the “highlight.” A highlight is a ten-second burst of pictures—like the keyframes of an animated sequence without the tweeners. But here’s the really innovative part. Those ten seconds play back in just over one second. So not only is the capture quicker to process than actual video, but the playback solves the asymmetry problem of amateur video.

Highlights not only capture emotions and condense time, but connect with other moments to form streams of memories. These streams remind me of how I recall things in my mind, as rushes of images, flashes of light, rhythms of repetitive patterns and disjunctions.

The real power of Lightt is as a social platform. Recording my own highlights is fun, but seeing an ever-refreshing flow composed of other people’s highlight streams is mesmerizing and transportive. At launch, you can choose people to follow from the current pool of several hundred users, but you can share your highlights on Facebook and Twitter. As it grows you will be able to use the app as an extension of your existing social networks. But I suspect that there will be people who use the app particularly well who I will want to follow not because I know them, but because I want to see what they see, in real time.

This brings up an important concept about social networks that I have experienced particularly on Twitter. There is a difference between ones actual friends and ones media friends or content friends. Some people use Facebook or Google+ in very organized ways and deploy groups of friends and contacts in various ways, but for me, my Facebook friends are the people I actually know (I realize this is very old school) and the people I follow on Twitter are the people (who I may know or not) who consistently recommend content and express ideas that I am interested in.

I expect Lightt to be some mix of the two for me, but it is a much more intimate experience to follow someone’s highlights than their tweets. It’s very immediate to see where somebody is in the world and what they are doing. You can choose to make any given highlight public or not, but the more you experience other people’s highlights, the more you want to return the favor. Lightt is really a different kind of social network, somewhat based on shared interests but more emotional and aesthetic than topic bound. It’s a fairly non-invasive way to create a window into your life at any given moment. And once you have captured a moment or a few, your sharing process is simply a matter of approving or deleting what you’ve shot and making them public or private. And the playback, remember, is ten times as fast as what you just shot. It is really about as close as you can get to living in a post-production, post-editing world. See, shoot, share, repeat.

On a technology level, Mostoufi explains that they have created the technology stack from end to end and use their own API’s to run the app. This gives them the ability to iterate quickly and also to make the highlight streams available to other apps and social networks. They have built a lot of metadata into the format of the highlights and plan to add more layers over time.

Lightt is conceived as a platform that can grow rapidly and feed other applications. Learning from Instagram, a lot of engineering has gone into the zippy performance of the highlight stream. Even within the highlight animations themselves, they have “added alchemy to make it work.” Sutch didn’t give away the secret sauce, but my guess is that they have built in some subtle transitions and easing effects into how the image series plays to create a more natural, almost analog feel.

It is the kind of app that will have a lot of people looking at and trying to figure out how it works. Even more importantly, it feels like a new kind of thing, not just “the Instagram of…” It’s easy to wax poetic and philosophical about Lightt because it gives us a different way to experience time and space and each other. I must say, this was the only tech demo that I have ever participated in where the founder invoked Heidegger’s Being and Time to try to explain the sense that we all live in the same moment. I suggest you save yourself the 592 pages of phenomenological musings and just download the app!

Bonus round: My puppy, Tuula, captured in repose while I blog.