The photograph is a profoundly human invention. Not in the sense that a human thought it up, as is the case with most inventions, but more in the sense it addresses an issue unique to human nature.
Since the very first overachieving scientists began tinkering with camera obscuras, the idea of burning light into a metal plate, chemically soaked page or even sensor module appeals to our profoundly human sense of nostalgia.
Photographs serve as windows to our personal time lines. The ability to dip into the past through a fossilization of its unique light relays plug into our need to consistently revisit where we came from.
It’s the reason a closet in your home is most likely crammed full of coffee-stained albums, the reason a stack of photo-crammed floppy disks or CD’s sits scrawled on with sharpie in the dusty confines of your old desk, the reason Instagram, SnapChat and Facebook all rest neatly on your app home screen.
The photograph is human. Yet like most profound insights spurred by our own desire its effectiveness is underutilized, at least according to Steve Cosman and Kalu Kalu, two Torontonians looking to seize on the tremendous and unrealized potential our yellowing photography collections have to enrich our lives.
Two years ago Cosman was sitting at his desk at Microsoft. Feeling as though the big corporate approach to solving problems was growing stale, he started bouncing startup ideas via text to his longtime friend Kalu.
“I was trying to convince Kalu to quit his job and join me,” says Cosman with a laugh.
The duo originally met at Shad Valley, a summer camp that places gifted high school students together for four weeks on a Canadian university campus in order to complete courses in science, engineering, technology and entrepreneurship. By complete chance the two ended up as roommates.
Ten years later, after both would go on to complete the same bachelor degree in software engineering at Waterloo University, the pair is inseparable.
While initially hesitant to leave his comfortable job at Research In Motion, now better known as Blackberry, to enter the wild west of the tech startup game, once Cosman pitched photo storage as an area for possible innovation Kalu put in his notice.
Two years later, the two serve at the helm of Shoebox, an app aiming at providing users with a sanctuary for every image they have and ever will create.
“We’re basically trying to solve this problem people have of their photo collections growing more and more complex over the years,” says Cosman. “You have more and more devices in your life, more cameras, photos end up being spread across your computer, your tablet, your phone, all these different places.”
“What you really want is a simple collection, you can just take a photo and view it on your TV or tablet without worrying about syncing or where it is stored.”
With Shoebox the duo has done just that. In the first year of operating they churned out a multiple platform app that works with however you take photos, be it on a digital camera or Instagram, and automatically backs them up and organizes them onto a private cloud server.
The gallery was inspired by the fragmentation of the average photo collection. The print-and-hardware solutions to photo storage like the albums and CD’s from the ’90s locked away somewhere in your parent’s garage being entirely separate from the most recent Walmart envelope of your latest trip to Cuba.
“[The] same kind of thing exists in the cloud services world, some [photographs] are going to Instagram, some are going to Facebook, some are going to SnapChat; and they’re all great services but there is no place where you can access the entirety of your collection which really is a private depository,” says Cosman. “There is this lack of ecosystem, so there is no web-based Photoshop because there is no web-based photo collection.”
Despite the functionality of the app, motivating users to put there entire photo collection onto the cloud posed a tougher challenge than originally expected.
In the beginning Cosman, Kalu and their team addressed the literal issue of bringing entire, albeit splintered, collections to one place but they had ignored why exactly our photographs end up tucked-away and lost at all.
“The core problem was they were sitting there because the person never thought to go look at them,” says Cosman, who reached across the table to show a picture of his wife being ambushed by a playful monkey during a holiday from years back.
“It’s search versus rediscovery, I will never in a million years search ‘monkey photo’ with ‘wife’ but if I’m delightfully presented it I’m incredibly happy.” Says Cosman.
The image, in seemingly random fashion, was presented to Cosman by Shoebox as a result of an algorithm falling in line with the app’s “rediscovery” programming, all of which is aimed at presenting you flashbacks into your past, plucked right from your private gallery, at the exact right moment.
Every image deposited to Shoebox’s cloud is knit-picked by code looking to catalogue it and potentially mark it as an outlier by drawing context from variables such as time and location. Once analytics run their course the image is spring loaded and ready to be presented to you exactly when it will have the most impact.
“Even if you’ve been taking photos for ten years there is a good chance you’ve stopped looking at them,” says Cosman “[You] captured these moments with the hope of being able to relive those memories and actually go through those experiences again but this clutter and this massive amount of data is a barrier to it.”
“It was kind of this moment like, ‘okay I want to keep my photos safe’ but now I’m given a reason to keep them safe.”
Since readjusting the business model, and spending more time bridging the gap between downloaders and their long lost memories Shoebox’s app reviews, referrals and users has shot through the roof.
Keeping up with the surge is a small crew taking up one row of desks on the second floor of a King street office tower in the heart of Toronto’s entertainment district.
With the goal of being the default solution for photo storage and rediscovery en mass, Cosman points to Shoebox’s intrinsically human design as the precursor to its past and future success.
“There is this idea of an old Shoebox full of photos, you know you put it under your bed and you never look at it again,” says Cosman. “Once in awhile you pull it out though, and the feeling you get digging through it is kind of the feeling we want you to have when you open up our app.”
Dylan Freeman-Grist is a staff writer for Toronto Standard. Follow him on Twitter.