Mike Isaac

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Ex-Facebookers’ Mobile App, Shadow Puppet, Brings Voice Narrative to Photo Sharing

A picture, it has been said, is worth a thousand words.

But what if sometimes that isn’t enough?

This occasional deficiency of sorts is the proposition behind Shadow Puppet, the mobile app from ex-Facebookers Carl Sjogreen and Adrian Graham, which aims to bring a stronger element of storytelling to photo sharing.

“Almost invariably, when we meet with our friends,” Sjogreen said, “someone would get out their phone and start to talk through the photos on their phone.” They would be showing off their latest trip to Japan, for instance, or perhaps their children’s latest activities.

“That experience happened quite frequently, and is weirdly powerful,” Sjogreen said. “The problem was, even as natural as this was in person, the options for communicating a complicated idea or story — there just wasn’t an easy way to do it.”

Which lent itself to how Shadow Puppet works. After opening the app, a user sifts through the photos on their camera roll and chooses a handful of related ones — say, five or so. The app stitches them together, and asks you to record a voice-over set to the photos, which display themselves in succession like a flip-through slideshow. Your voice, then, is set to the pace of the changing photos on the screen — a pace you select while recording the voiceover — essentially creating a narrative of moving pictures.

Obviously, it’s more work than a simple photo-sharing application like Instagram, but Graham offers that this is exactly what opens the app up to more use cases.

“One of our first test users is a teacher,” Graham said, when showing me the teacher’s Shadow Puppet video on the nuance of a tortoise’s ridged shell. “He’s tried to make other instructional videos before, but found it hard to make them high enough quality,” he said.

Another example, Sjogreen offered, is when he received a Shadow Puppet in an email from his sister, who lives overseas and doesn’t see him frequently. “It came across much better than a phone conversation,” he said. “It gave me a real window into her world that I really haven’t had since we were growing up.”

As with any modern mobile app, Shadow Puppet content is easily sharable on Facebook and Twitter, so pushing out stories to the masses is just as possible as sending a private album to a friend or family member. If the two want the app to take off fast enough, that shareability is important.

I wondered, however, if the relative complexity of the app compared to other photo-sharing services would be too high a barrier to growth. After all, some of the most simple photo-sharing apps of our day — Instagram, Snapchat, even Vine, if you want to consider it — are easily the most popular.

And, while it is charming, the app might lead to something I observed: I sent a friend a Shadow Puppet and watched her skip right through the voice narration and flip ahead. “I just wanted to look at the photos,” she said.

Sjogreen and Graham didn’t necessarily disagree with my qualms. But, while Shadow Puppet isn’t as simple as a Snapchat, Sjogreen and Graham propose that it is quite a simple process, regardless. And, when we want to do more than just share a simple picture, the tools don’t quite exist. “When you want to tell a story, what would you use?” Graham said.

The app launches today, and is available for iOS 7 in Apple’s App Store.

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Another gadget you don’t really need. Will not work once you get it home. New model out in 4 weeks. Battery life is too short to be of any use.

— From the fact sheet for a fake product entitled Useless Plasticbox 1.2 (an actual empty plastic box) placed in L.A.-area Best Buy stores by an artist called Plastic Jesus