Photographers sacrifice the present to remember the past in the future.
This weekend I attended a wedding where smartphones being used as cameras were everywhere. It really highlighted for me how people don’t live in the moment anymore. The idea of removing the barrier between you and the moment you are enjoying has always been a dream of mine. I resent spending time at my kids’ birthday parties watching the candles be blown out on a 4-inch screen instead of being fully immersed in my children’s happiness.
Until now there hasn’t been a potentially legit way to live in the moment AND preserve the memory. Enter Google Glass.
In my day job, I oversee the future of the product direction at Aviary. Our company mission is to democratize creativity. We provide a powerful photo editor that is relied on by thousands of companies and millions of people each day. So I’m not going to miss an opportunity to immerse myself in new photographic mediums we might need to develop for. We were one of the first in line to buy Glass at Google IO last year.
To be candid, my first hour with Glass wasn’t great. I won’t go into all the problems it has here. There are other more technical reviews for that. And to be fair, my disappointment is probably my own fault for buying into the hype. Despite the marketing, this is not a super-jet. It’s the Wright brother’s first plane. If I had looked forward to Glass as just a taste of things to come, I wouldn’t have been let down.
I decided to ignore my first impressions and forced myself to wear Glass for an entire weekend, focusing exclusively on the photography aspect of it. That’s all I really cared about after all: Could I use Glass as the solution to my inability to both live in the moment and preserve my memories? That’s what I wanted to find out.
I would set to doing all the suburban weekend father things I normally do, and see how using Glass as my exclusive camera changed my everyday life: I alternate between lugging around a DSLR and using my iPhone 5 camera to capture the recordable parts of my family life: My son’s Little League and hockey games. Playing stickball with my kids in the park. Family biking and rollerblading. My daughter’s piano practice. Eating in restaurants, with 4 kids in tow.
One of the biggest challenges with Glass is not feeling like a douchebag / nerd / show-off when you wear them in public. What was clear to me was that strangers do notice them and they do not judge you negatively at all (yet). Quite the opposite actually. Google Glass acted like a welcoming beacon for strangers to come over and make small talk (always resulting in a request to try them on). I’m a bit shy and my interests don’t often dovetail with the doctors and lawyers of suburbia, so it was pleasant to find myself talking technology with strangers. Some people may find this attention uncomfortable though. I expect it will diminish as Glass becomes more common.
Actually interacting with my children became a pleasure. I will often come back from vacations with thousands of photos (no hyperbole) in my struggle to get the “perfect shot.” And while I love taking the photos, the minimalist in me always thinks about how clean and enjoyable my life would be without the added distraction of a camera. Having an uninterrupted, undistracted catch with my son simply couldn’t happen before with a phone or camera in my hand. Watching him make a great play and not having to view it through a viewfinder means I actually get to enjoy the moment in real-life with all of my senses intact.
To be sure, there are still distractions (i.e. the voice controls in a noisy Little League game don’t work very well) and there is a learning curve to not missing key moments by spending 5 seconds navigating the voice menu to take a photo or record a video (Google smartly provides a shortcut snapshot button on the frame). You are aware it’s on your face and you can’t move it completely out of your field of view, which can be headache inducing. But as you learn to use it, these first-world problems become less relevant. You can focus on being in the moment.
Glass photography can help society too. I think about the concerts and children’s plays I go to where rude people (read: everyone) hold their phones and sometimes tablets in the air to record what’s in front of them, disrupting the experience for everyone behind them. Glass also has the potential to fix that problem.
Photo by Martin Fish
What will the impact on photography be?
It wasn’t until I got home and downloaded all of my photos and videos that the importance of Glass really struck me. I could easily tell which photos and video were taken by me and which were taken by my children. The impact of point of view photography is not something I had ever really thought about, though Google had hammered that point home in their original trailers.
Is that really how gigantic I look to my children? I remember adults being huge when I was a child, but I’d forgotten just how big until now. Seeing mundane photographs from the natural height and angle of their eyes gives them life and makes the photographer relatable. These photos are not artistic, but they have a human soul.
POV photography is such a natural way to return to a moment in time or momentarily slip on someone else’s body and see the world through their eyes. While pro and creative photographers will not give up their hand-held equipment in this lifetime, I am certain that this will become the standard mode of photography for the common masses sometime in the very near future.
Google Glass is an amazing idea whose time has come. Future iterations and competition will make devices like this even better for photography. I can’t wait for Aviary to be a part of this developing medium.
When I first started @Aviary, I planned to be completely transparent about the company’s progress with everyone: employees, users and total strangers.
I understood that traditionally, early startups were in complete stealth mode and closed about their plans and progress.
That seemed silly to me.
It didn’t make those startups seem mysterious. It made their ideas seem indefensible if the only way to protect it was to keep quiet about it: A good startup idea is one that leverages the founders’ unique insight, backgrounds or positions in a defensible way. Worse, being silent made their progress seem minimal: It’s rare that a successful startup stays quiet for very long.
Take this January 2010 tweet from Dennis Crowley on Foursquare’s early growth, for example:
Your silence speaks volumes
There is cruel irony in that even people who think they are being stealthy aren’t. You are always sending signals to everyone around you, even by not sending any at all. When you are quiet about your progress or lack thereof, you are actually sending out terrible signals to the world.
Ycombinator’s Paul Graham can always tell when a startup is dying:
For us the main indication of impending doom is when we don’t hear from you. When we haven’t heard from, or about, a startup for a couple months, that’s a bad sign. If we send them an email asking what’s up, and they don’t reply, that’s a really bad sign. So far that is a 100% accurate predictor of death.
Transparency is good across your company
One of my good friends and former Aviary engineers, Mo Boehm, once commented to me:
"It’s probably a good idea to write all of your code anticipating that a thousand people will see it."
Damn straight. Transparency (or the intention of it) leads to better decisions, in code and the real world.
Once you’re in the habit of being transparent, you make better decisions simply because you have no choice. You are being judged by everyone, and that’s a great thing. You can’t coast along or plateau without being held accountable by the world. An underperforming startup flying under the radar of the world is the worst thing for everyone involved in that startup. You can only coast for so long. Money runs out and investors will eventually see your flat stats. Being transparent with the world will force you to deal with problems immediately, before it’s too late.
And if you have no skeletons in your closet, you can’t be caught off guard when sensitive data inevitably leaks (because it will).
Learning the hard way
In Aviary’s early history and against my better judgement, I abandoned being transparent after someone close to the company told me I was being naive and that data shouldn’t be shared, not with strangers and not even employees. I wasn’t experienced and confident enough at the time to trust my instincts. This person was well meaning, but in retrospect it was wrong advice for Aviary.
There were repercussions in a variety of ways:
- Our users lost a personal connection to the team. We were no longer Aviary: the Product Team, a scrappy, enthusiastic group of individuals trying to change the world by making cool products. We were just Aviary: The Product. Users can’t have a personal relationship with a product.
- Our users no longer had any insight into our product plans. Some of our earliest feedback and user excitement came from regularly checking the Aviary blog for new tidbits on what was coming out and how traffic was performing. After getting quieter we lost a lot of that prime buzz among our earliest adopters.
- Our employees no longer had any window into how we were performing. When we tightened our belts, as will happen in startups, it caught them completely by surprise. Not cool. It makes those who stayed with the company lose their feeling of job security that comes with a window into the data. NOTE: Startup employees don’t fear being let go. They fear it happening unexpectedly.
- The lack of transparency filtered out into other ways, that ultimately infected the company DNA. For example, my team would be loathe to share bad news about late deadlines, etc… with me. And I in turn would be loathe to share bad news with investors and the board. Not healthy.
It reached a point when I decided I had enough and was going back to the basics. At the same point we officially repositioned Aviary as a photo-editing API that developers could plug into their apps, I sat down my team and told them that from this day on we’d be completely transparent as a company. The culture had to change.
We make it a point to share key aspects from our board meeting with the entire team afterwards. Every week the team is given a full update on our growth metrics, product roadmap, current strategy, bd partnerships, etc… And most importantly, we’re back to interactively sharing our progress with the world.
In retrospect, I learned two very valuable lessons that I won’t ever need to repeat:
- Always be transparent.
- Trust your own instincts. But that’s a post for another time.
More to come on Twitter @avimuchnick.