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Vine’s Great Mobile Design Is All About Its Engineering

Vine, Twitter’s new “Instagram for video,” looks pretty. But it’s what’s under the hood that counts.
January 25, 2013

I didn’t expect anyone to crack the “Instagram for video” problem anytime soon. But Vine, the new mobile-video-sharing app from Twitter, may have actually done it. Why? Because it’s well-designed with a user experience that’s totally native to mobile, with no legacy connections to laptops or desktops.

But that means much more than just a sleek user interface, although Vine does have that in spades. On mobile, the bedrock to any “well-designed” experience is speed. It is always speed. Which means that whatever’s going on underneath Vine’s pretty face is some serious engineering-fu. Instagram used some crafty coding tricks to create an impression of lightning-fast performance to the user. But streamlining tiny still images is one thing–compressing edited video, even six seconds’ worth at a time, is quite another.

TechCrunch saw the “Instagram for video” challenge as primarily technical back in September. Here were their prerequisites for any such app to be successful:

(1) Easy-to-use HD video capture
(2) Apple-like user experience (U/X), which means seamless integration with the video capture device and one-click filters, effects, private/public sharing
(3) Immediate untethered fast file uploading to the cloud
(4) Optimized cloud transcoding
(5)Intuitive video content management (CMS) from the device itself and any connected device
(6) Intelligent & secure delivery/playback

Right away, Vine breaks some of these rules, which is probably how it was able to create a superfast UX for mobile video. First, Vine clearly doesn’t capture in HD. The video clips, in The Verge’s apt words, are “fast and noisy.” Like Instagram, Vine sacrifices pixel resolution for speed and gets away with it because the user experience is primarily, well, mobile: you’re more likely to be watching Vine clips in a tiny square on your smartphone, not blown up on a Retina Macbook Pro. 

Vine also skips the filters. That would just add an extra step to making a video clip that doesn’t add much instant value to it. Instead, Vine lets you string multiple shots together in a way that’s just as simple as Instagram’s filters. Editing, it seems, is the “filters of video”–the value-add that video can do quickly and easily that other visual media can’t.

Adding filtration to six seconds of video would require realtime rendering–a tall order for a mobile app. But smushing one video clip into another with a straight cut is a much easier computational task, and one that translates into a much more engaging video experience. Instagram feels fun because it turns your crappy photos into art; Vine feels fun because of the Kuleshov Effect: what happens when you cut from one image to another (even randomly) and your brain fills in the gap to make a story?

So how does Vine accomplish “immediate untethered uploading” and “optimized transcoding,” the technical demons that have left a boneyard of failed mobile video apps in their wake? I asked Twitter to explain, and when they do, I’ll let you know. 

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