One of the singular features of the new iPhone 6s and iPhone 6s Plus is Live Photos. The new default way to take a picture on next-gen iPhones, Live Photos brings every photo to life when you hard tap them, seamlessly transforming them into a short live video. It’s one of the best ideas Apple has had in years.
It’s simplistic to think of Live Photos as just Apple’s answer to GIFs. They’re really movies: a single frame of a short video, shot in the blink of an eye, squished between two live-action digital bookends. When you tap a LivePhoto, it shows you about a second of video on the side, bringing the photo to life under your fingertip, almost like something out of Harry Potter.
This isn’t exactly a new idea. Instagram, for example, displays videos almost as if they are still photos. They spring to life when they’re under your finger, or if you linger on them too long. Both approaches extrapolate a still image from a video stream, but Apple’s seems more magical, because it’s happening invisibly.
All of this takes some nimble tech to get right. It’s likely that Apple is making this happen thanks to their acquisition of SnappyLabs in 2014, the maker of SnappyCam, an app that allowed you to take full-resolution photos at 30 frames per second on your iPhone. (SnappyLab’s technology was also incorporated into the iPhone 5s’s Burst Mode camera functionality.) Older iPhones won’t be able to take Live Photos either, because it requires a camera sensor that’s just as good at video as it is at stills. That’s rare, but thanks to 4K video support, the iPhone 6s’s new 12MP sensor finally seems up to the task.
It’s a lovely design detail, one that could easily get lost in the shuffle of an otherwise crowded event. Apple will be releasing a Live Photos API to developers, so this is even something that could be integrated into third-party apps. Imagine if every Instagram photo could be tapped to bring it to life, just like videos.
At the same time, it does introduce some interesting privacy connotations: If I’m taking a selfie, one second on either side of things is all I need to accidentally reveal I’m not wearing any pants. Sharing the perfect still shot is one thing, but accidentally sharing the couple of seconds of blurry ambient chaos that surrounded it is something else entirely.