Twin technological developments—the ubiquity of the digital camera and the rise of social media to distribute images—have given us a photographic era characterized by one thing: volume. Just consider, for a moment, how many photographs you viewed every day in 2013, versus how many photographs you (or any adult) viewed every day in 1993. Surely the difference must be measured in orders of magnitude. As with all media, when it comes to photographs, there is an ever mounting pressure to metabolize more and more—but we're stuck with the same cognitive capacities and hours in the day as we had in Kodak's heyday.
A few years ago Rowland Hobbs, the creator of the photo app Linea, which launches a major new iteration in September, got to thinking about this. Despite all the transformations that had occurred around digital imagery, "one basic metaphor remained," he says: the slideshow. We produce photographs differently and share them differently, yet we continue to consume them in the same way: one by one. Whether it’s on iPhoto or Facebook, where you click from one photo to the next, or on Instagram, where you scroll from one to the next, we almost always consume photos sequentially.
Linea is designed for a different sort of experience. The app allows you to create "lines" of photographs; one line might be a family reunion, another might be a trip, another might be a series of thematically linked images. Upload photos to a line, and Linea then uses an algorithm to figure out what the main event of each photo is, crop it appropriately, and then stitch that photo into a mosaic that you can scroll through horizontally. "It’s a scrolling way to see lots of photos," Hobbs says.
After testing the product with distinct sets of groups—fashion photographers, families, food bloggers—Hobbs says Linea will enter a new phase of social networky openness, where anybody can follow anyone else’s "lines." Since it allows you to view many images at once—even more than Instagram—Hobbs describes Linea "like Twitter for photos."
"A line can be anything you want it to be," says Hobbs, and you can set it so that multiple users can contribute to the same line. He and his boyfriend, for instance, often independently take photos of their calico cat, Miss Donna. ("She’s named after both Madonna and Donna Summer," says Hobbs, who got the cat while studying philosophy in Belgium. For a time, Miss Donna would only respond to French.) Since they can each add photos to a single Miss Donna line, followers can go to one place to see a scrolling collage of the kitty’s latest antics, as depicted by her owners.
The same sort of collective visual narrative can be crafted out of anything. "Linea enables you to take hundreds of pictures but still make sense of them visually. You can see, ‘Oh, there’s a story unfolding here,’" says Hobbs.
For years Hobbs worked at digital agencies in New York; in 2011 he began pursuing Linea as a sideline. When he began to realize its promise, he started focusing on it more; with $4 million of angel investment, he was able to expand, bringing on a computer scientist who has made Linea smart at skilled guesses as to how to crop photos. The algorithm uses techniques like facial recognition and photographic tradition’s "rule of thirds." A future iteration will also allow users to add labels to photos, so Linea will know to leave a landscape image relatively intact, for instance. Labeling photos also helps Linea make better guesses about what should be the "hero shot" among the mosaic—the larger photo that anchors the rest surrounding it.
Hobbs says that one inspiration for his work has been his own experiences with ocular albinism. Since Hobbs has less pigmentation at the rear of his eye (one of the most pigmented parts of a person's body, just as the rear of a camera is dark), he sees the world more brightly than others. The world itself is overexposed to Hobbs, who says "you might think of it as a permanent Instagram filter." Hobbs thinks his experience with ocular albinism actually gives him a privileged way of conceiving of app users. "When I look at something, it’s probably how most people look at something when they’re not giving their full attention."
His is an impediment that actually heightens Hobbs' awareness of good, simple design. "Far too many designers think that the amount of attention they give to their designs is the amount of attention users give to them," he says. Because of his ocular albinism, Hobbs has a very natural desire to want "things to be very clear and crisp. The more muddled, the more things there are, I get lost in that."