Instagram, currently the most popular digital photo-sharing service, relies on what is essentially an old-fashioned medium: 2D photography. What if users could apply modern effects that make for a more interactive experience? That’s the idea behind a free app called Moju, an Instagram-like social network that goes beyond static photography.
After launching Moju on an iPhone (it’s iOS only right now), you could easily mistake the user interface for Instagram’s: images are square, and you can favorite a photo and add comments, scroll up the screen to explore content, and follow users. But, twist the phone left and right, and you see the images come alive: It could be a montage of different photos celebrating a person’s birthday, a brief history of a child growing up from baby to toddler, a stop-motion of toys moving around, or a time-lapse animation of a train arriving at a station. Design website Houzz uses it to show the various interiors of a house. It’s this 3D effect that makes Moju different from other services.
Moju isn’t exactly revolutionary: It’s essentially merging a series of JPEG images (minimum of two photos) to create the animation – similar to an animated GIF – and tied to the twisting of the phone. The animated effect can be viewed via the app or Moju’s website (instead of twisting a phone, you slide your mouse cursor across the image), or exported as a movie file (you can also download other users’ public Mojus as a video). Movies are compressed and frames are spread out to fill the max 24 frames. Popular among users is the Spinning Selfie (searchable via #spinningselfie), where self-portraits are taken with animated backgrounds, or repurposing Instagram photos as collages.
But unlike Vine or Instagram’s video feature, you aren’t shooting a short video file, although the capture process is similar (you can also turn a prerecorded video into a Moju image). And unlike the app Seene, you aren’t creating a perspective-shift view of a static image. Moju plays in the same ballpark as these apps, but it’s delivering a unique experience.
“It’s different in the sense that we’re not necessarily reinventing the capture side of things, but really we’re creating something that’s the new metaphor for consumption,” says Mok Oh, Moju’s founder. “It’s a personalized memory machine.”
And that’s Moju’s goal: to build a new way for people to consume their 2D images. According to Oh, the app’s conception was based around a collection of memories. Oh says today’s smartphones are excellent for capturing images, but the problem is how we consume them afterward.
“I ask everyone, ‘you take lot of pictures, but when was the last you actually looked at them?’,” Oh says. “We wanted to create something that anybody is able to use it, but consume it in such a different way that they would love it.”
“A summer of moments you capture in the videos or photos that you have.”
“What we really want to do is create what we call a medium medium, where you can import photos and videos or you can take capture right now, and be able to consume really fast. You don’t lose any of the photo or video capabilities, and you can just capture however way you want, but you are able to consume them as a more high-fidelity memory.”
Moju might seem like another Instagram wannabe or a copycat, but Oh brings plenty of engineering experience to the table. As a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Pennsylvania, Oh studied computer science, graphics, and vision, after receiving his undergraduate degree in art. Prior to starting Moju, Oh was the chief scientist at PayPal, leading divisions handling big data; oversaw mobile-based technologies around location information and commerce at Where Inc. (now a PayPal subsidiary); and founded a mapping and data visualization company called EveryScape. Moju’s underlying technology stems from all of Oh’s schooling and experience.
Looking at Moju’s interface, it may seem too simplistic of an app when you consider Mok’s extensive background in computer visuals, as well as that of his cofounder Justin Legakis, who worked with backend data at Google and Nvidia (Moju’s team consists of only three, albeit experienced, engineers). But the app’s ease of use and single-vision approach is intentional, as it’s really the foundation for what’s to come.
After a soft launch last year (“we had a synthesized view” of mostly friends, friends of friends, and family, Oh says), Moju recently opened the app to the public. This second phase is not only to get interest and feedback, but Moju’s big goal is to collect a lot of data (i.e., users and their photos) before it can introduce new features and services (Oh gave us a glimpse of a secret technology his team is working on, but it can only exist if there’s enough data), with limited resources and funding. As cool as services like Instagram, Flickr, and other big social networks may be, they didn’t achieve their popularity without big data; the same goes for Moju and other similar startups, and Oh says will require at least a year before things like facial recognition and automation can be introduced. Any new features in the works at Moju’s lab depends on this success.
“If you have a lot of users, it’s validation that this is a valuable product,” Oh says. “As we get bigger, we’ll look at different avenues in terms of the B2C or B2B side of things. There’s a lot of different applications for Moju, not just social networking. In e-commerce, people are interested in using Moju to show off a product better. Restaurants are asking how they can use Moju to take pictures of food that they can look at from different angles. I think there are a lot of applications where it could be more of a B2B service, where we enable technologies, brands, and businesses to integrate our stuff closely, and use it for their purposes.
“Having said that, right now, photos are very social, and this is the direction where we are focused on,” Oh adds, saying that any future goals, including an Android version, will depend on user growth. “We think we can really explode [as a social network], and we’ve seen lots of hints about that.”
And while Moju’s HTML 5-based technology isn’t proprietary, it does have a patent on it. But Moju isn’t opposed to licensing Moju’s joo joo, or even if another service copies it.
“If Instagram decides to use this, we’d love that,” Oh says. “It’s validation this is important and useful.” But the burden is on Moju to make sure users are aware that the idea came from Moju first.
“We get love letters from users every day: ‘This is the next Instagram.'”
“It’s nowhere near Instagram big, but there’s enough validation that people love our product and they continue to use it,” Oh says, who doesn’t hide his desire for Moju to become the next big thing in photo sharing. “We get love letters from users every day. This is anecdotal, but a lot of people say, ‘This is the next Instagram.’ We need a different way to consume things, and that’s what we are.
“Part of being an entrepreneur is that you have to be self delusional. [Saying that we want to be the next Instagram] is staying relevant to our users,” Oh adds.