Ditch That USB Cable: The Coolest Apps for Sending Your Photos Around Wirelessly
For average consumers, the big complaint about digital photography has always been that it’s too hard to extract the pictures you’ve taken from your camera or phone so you can show them to the rest of the world. But the truth is there are so many ways to move, share, and display digital photos today that there’s no longer any excuse for letting your pictures languish. This week’s column is meant to point you toward a few cool examples of applications to help share your photos—plus one that’s promising but, unfortunately, not quite ready for prime time.
There’s one word for the hurdle that keeps a lot of people from using their digital cameras more often: cables. To get photos of your camera, you usually have to track down the right USB cable, hook it to the computer, then find the photo-transfer program that came with the camera when you bought it. Wouldn’t it be great if your camera simply sent all of your recent photos to your computer wirelessly, the moment you turned the camera on? Well, that’s exactly what the Eye-Fi Explore, Eye-Fi Share, and Eye-Fi Home cards from Mountain View, CA-based Eye-Fi let you do.
The cards are regular SD memory cards that hold 2 gigabytes of pictures and fit into the existing SD slot in your camera. But they also include tiny radios that allow the cards to connect to Wi-Fi networks such as the one you probably have in your house. From there, the cards can either upload your photos to your home computer or, in the case of Eye-Fi Share and Eye-Fi Explore, send them directly to your favorite photo-sharing site, such as Picasa, Flickr, or Photobucket.
The top-of-the-line card, the Explore, also comes with a year of free Wayport Wi-Fi hotspot service so you can upload photos from any of the Wayport’s thousands of member restaurants and hotels, including many McDonald’s locations. The Explore card also automatically geotags your photos—attaching the latitude and longitude to your photo’s electronic metadata, so that you can view them on a Web-based map. (To find the location where each photo is taken, the card uses Wi-Fi-based positioning software supplied by Boston’s Skyhook Wireless. I wrote about the deal between Skyhook and Eye-Fi last May).
My brother and his wife gave me an Eye-Fi Explore card for my birthday last week (thanks Jamie & Jen!). I’ve been testing it out this week, and it works astonishingly well. A 5-megabyte photo, taken at my camera’s maximum 3264 x 2448-pixel resolution, takes only a few seconds to upload to my computer, and appears in my Flickr account moments after that. I’ve tried setting the Eye-Fi card to upload images to my Evernote account (the wonderful digital notebook service I wrote about last July) and it works great for that too. The added bonus here is that Evernote can recognize words in your photos—so if one of your pictures included a billboard, a street sign, or some text on a whiteboard, you’d be able to find it later by searching for that text.
There are only a couple of downsides to the Eye-Fi card. One is that it uploads everything on your memory card indiscriminately, so you’d better be sure that the photos you’ve taken are really ones that you want showing up on a public photo-sharing account (although you can adjust the privacy settings for Web-bound photos in advance). Also, you can’t change the card’s settings from the camera—you have to do it using a Web-based management interface, which means you must be at an Internet-connected computer to switch between uploading to different sites. That’s a bit of an annoyance, because I share most of my photos on Flickr, but every once in a while I’d like to use my camera to record something on Evernote.
(Update, January 16, 2009: The Eye-Fi card’s popularity appears to be growing; the device just won the “Last Gadget Standing” competition at the International Consumer Electronics Show.)
But you don’t need a fancy digital camera or a wireless SD card to get into the mobile photo-sharing game. If you have a camera phone, you can send your photos off to your friends or to a Web album with no hassle. There are two mobile photo-sharing services that I particularly like, both launched in 2008, and both with automatic geotagging features.
One is SnapMyLife, which is accessible from any mobile Web browser, but also offers a nice specialized app for iPhone users. The iPhone app includes a Google Maps screen that lets you browse photos uploaded by other members. With more than 500,000 people using the service, you’re bound to find shots from a few fellow SnapMyLife users in any urban neighborhood. Some people use SnapMyLife to build mini-travelogues; a case in point is user a member called JD573F, who’s at the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this week, uploading dozens of shots as she walks the vast halls of the convention center.
The other mobile photo sharing app I’ve been playing with a lot lately is called AirMe. So far, the Colorado Springs, CO-based startup’s service is only available as an iPhone app, but the company says it’s working on versions of the app for Sony and Nokia phones. If you want to share a photo, you open the AirMe app instead of the phone’s regular camera application. It instantly uploads any photo you snap to the photo-sharing service of your choice, including Flickr, Picasa, Facebook, and Twitter. This simplicity is what makes AirMe so useful—like the Eye-Fi cards, it eliminates the laborious step of manually selecting and uploading the photos you want to share.
Services like SnapMyLife and AirMe aren’t meant to compete with heavy-duty online photo communities like Flickr. They’re mainly for sharing the more casual photos that people capture on their cell phones. Indeed, as a longtime Flickr user, I have trouble imagining any new photo-sharing application so cool that it would induce me to start sharing the bulk of my photos anywhere else. But there is one new photo community, called Fotonauts, that caught my eye recently.
The brainchild of Jean-Marie Hullot, the former chief technology officer of Apple’s application development division, Fotonauts has a website full of gorgeous outdoor photos and a high-minded, Wikipedia-inspired mission to “enable the creation of the definitive pool of images for everyone to contribute to, discover, use and enjoy, covering all areas of human interest.” Hullot says he’s out to make photography more social by allowing users to do things like collaborate on Web albums, build information mashups that combine photos with maps and Wikipedia entries, and hold bulletin-board-style discussions around each photo.
It sounds great—and I’d definitely be interested in an application that allowed me to do something more creative with my photos than simply plop them into a Web album. But while the Paris-based startup has been getting a lot of fawning coverage from TechCrunch (Keith Teare, who co-founded Edgeio with TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington, is an employee at Fotonauts), I’m forced to report that Fotonauts is nowhere near the point of living up to the hype. I’ve been testing the beta version of the Fotonauts application, and I’ve found it to be both buggy—repeatedly hanging my Mac—and lonely, with little content available to browse and little discussion going on.
Fotonauts’ one indisputably useful function, at the moment, is to automatically synchronize whatever photos you dump into the application with your accounts on Flickr, Picasa, Facebook, or Twitter. But as I’ve noted above, that’s something that many other devices and applications can do. Fotonauts also provides a nice slide-show widget (investor and board member Joi Ito has published a sample show on Dubai) but that, too, is nothing unique. I get the sense that there’s a broader technological vision behind Fotonauts, involving tagging, the semantic Web, and better algorithms for searching images. But little of that is visible yet. I’m hoping that over the next few months, the Fotonauts community will grow to something closer to critical mass, and that Hullot’s team will reveal more of the features that would make Fotonauts into a true “photopedia.”
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Before I close: I always like to direct readers to cool free stuff on the Internet, and some of the most amazing free content anywhere is on iTunes U, which I wrote about back in August. Between now and Inauguration Day, January 20, Boston’s own WGBH is offering free iTunes downloads of six riveting episodes from “The Presidents,” originally aired as part of the The American Experience on PBS. There’s 20 hours of video available overall, including shows on FDR, Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, and Ronald Reagan. (Don’t ask me what happened to Eisenhower, Kennedy, the two Bushes, or Clinton.)