As Polaroid's business collapsed, Hipstamatic and Instagram came along to recreate some of that retro aesthetic in digital photos, and very few have looked back. Now a new startup wants to bring back the other elements of the much-beloved camera: the physical print, for one, and the “less is more” mentality of analog photography.
LifePrint is a small wireless printer that spits out physical copies of the digital photos on your smartphone or computer, and encourages you to share the tangible prints with friends via a social network of printers. "It's basically a physical version of Instagram," founder Robert Macauley told me.
There are already home photo printers that let you convert online images to physical prints. This one differs because it works remotely and wirelessly, over 3G, which is where the social networking gimmick comes in. So, say you have a relative living halfway around the world and want to send them photos from the family birthday party they just missed, you can "follow" their "printer handle,” send them some choice shots that they can print out with their LifePrint machine, and stick up on the refrigerator.
Of course, you could also just text the photos or post them on Facebook or Instagram and they could view them on their smartphone, tablet, or laptop. Why bother printing them out? Well, for the same reason people held on their Polaroid cameras so long, argued Macauley. You're not going to print out everything, so the ones you do choose to print mean more. They’re your favorite moments, the best shots, an experience that conjures up a happy memory, a catalog of your life.
"You get swept away in that nostalgia," he said. "It's a much warmer experience" than nowadays, when "with the flick of your thumb you can look at 200 photos in less than 2 seconds."
And clearly, there’s something about analog media that’s hard to shake. Most people still prefer paperbacks to e-books, and the big hit at the SXSW trade show last week was a DIY machine that reverts digital music files back to vinyl. "There's a tangible difference between looking at that photo through pixels and looking at them in your hand," said Macauley. "It's this ethereal thing. It's hard to put your finger on."
Macauley himself was “always the guy showing up at the party with a big Polaroid camera in my hand," he said. Then the company went bankrupt, his camera broke, and it became cost-prohibitive to get your hands on the equipment and film. Soon after that, he got his first iPhone, and photographs became tiny thumbnails behind a glass screen instead of something lining the apartment walls. That’s when the idea for LifePrint started to germinate.
The plan is to eventually build out a network of printers so users can search for and follow friends, favorite photographers, or celebrities. The company launched a Kickstarter campaign this morning and is hoping to raise $200,000 to finish developing the printer prototype and bring it to market, at $199. Seems a bit steep when you can already take and share vintage-looking photos instantly, for free. But in the long run, it may still end up cheaper than the dollar-a-photo Polaroid prints—plus you can skip those blurry, off-center ones where you accidentally blinked.