Animoto, with Boost from Amazon GPUs, Goes High-Definition

2/8/11Follow @wroush

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created a separate rendering engine for each style, and all of them were originally designed to run on Amazon’s CPUs.

Migrating the code so that it can run on GPUs is “really complicated,” Jefferson says, meaning it will take a few months to finish the job. But since about 25 percent of Animoto users choose the Original style for their videos, that was a good place to start.

The CPU-to-GPU transition has been in the works for nearly a year and has absorbed a good part of the 40-employee startup’s energy, Jefferson says. Embarking on the project was “one of those Innovator’s Dilemma sort of things,” he says. “But GPUs are what Pixar uses to render movies, and what gaming studios use to create first-person shooters, and if we are truly following on the heels of Hollywood we had to be on the platform that Hollywood uses.”

The upside to the switch isn’t just that Animoto’s videos look bigger and sharper. Now, the rendering time on a 30-second video, the service available to free “Lite” users at Animoto, is about 45 seconds, compared to 6 minutes before the GPU era. Six minutes is enough time to get up, grab a coffee, check your e-mail—and get completely sidetracked. The more-or-less instant rendering means Animoto users will be more likely to stay engaged and create finished videos that they want to share, Jefferson hopes. “Our expectation is that people will interact a lot more with their videos, because you are still in the mindset of what you wanted to do with it.”

Animoto’s roots are in the Seattle area, where Jefferson and his three co-founders Jason Hsiao, Stevie Clifton, and Tom Clifton all attended Bellevue High School; my colleague Greg profiled the company back in 2009, shortly after it raised $4.4 million in a funding round led by Seattle’s Madrona Venture Group. Other investors in that round included Amazon, Jeff Clavier’s SoftTech VC, and iStockphoto founder Bruce Livingstone. The startup has 2.5 million registered users and has been cash-flow positive since late 2008, according to Jefferson.

Animoto gained fame in startup circles in 2008, when it created a Facebook app for making free Animoto videos that quickly went viral, growing from 25,000 users to 750,000 in just four days—and sucking up so much rendering time that the company had to turn off some of the features that encouraged Facebook users to share the app. But since then, Animoto has de-emphasized its Facebook app, and it’s been more than a year since it updated its iPhone app.

That’s because neither platform proved very monetizable, Jefferson says: not enough free users converted to a premium plan. Instead, the company has focused on expanding its services to professional photographers and businesses. At the “Plus” membership level of $5 a month or $30 a year, users can make an unlimited number of videos, each up to 10 minutes long, and upgrade them to 480p for an extra $3 per video or to 720p for an extra $6. At the “Pro” level of $39 a month or $249 a year, the resolution upgrades are free, and users get access to a much larger selection of pre-licensed musical tracks. The Pro level of membership has proved extremely popular among … Next Page »

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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