Every now and then, a product comes along that makes so much sense, we wonder why we haven't always had a product like this. Once we own it, we wonder how we ever lived without it. It solves problems and issues we didn't even know we had. It enriches our lives, and the way we do things. The Instacube, which just launched on Kickstarter this Tuesday morning, aims to do just that.
Designed to be a passive and beautiful way to display all of your various photo feeds from Instagram, the Instacube is a 7.5-inch cube that automatically retrieves and showcases Instagrams taken by you, your friends, or "popular users" on a beautiful 6.5-inch square LCD touchscreen.
The Instacube is the solution for Instagram users that want enjoy their photos in more casual way. Now, anyone can passively view their Instagram feeds in their living rooms, on their work desks, or on their nightstands. They're party centerpieces, and a great way to immediately display photos being taken at that very party. It's the only way to share photos with a crowd of people; its viewfinder is far superior to that of an iPhone.
With the Instacube, the user isn't spending time looking for photos they took on their tiny smartphone screens; your photos are always on display when you want them to be.
Building The Cube
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Part of John Whaley's job is called "need-finding," which involves examining and outlining faults with the "devices and applications we love," and finding ways to improve upon their designs without diluting or overcomplicating the experience.
With his varied experiences in sociology, art, and industrial design, Whaley is the perfect fit for his job as the head of Industrial Design and User Experience at D2M | Design to Matter, a design consultancy based in the heart of Silicon Valley.
"Once people see their photos being pushed to them in a format that's larger than what they're accustomed to seeing, they realize, 'Oh, this isn't trying to replace the Instagram experience,'" Whaley said in an interview weeks before his Kickstarter launch. "This is actually feeding it to you in a new way that maybe you haven't thought of before, but one you're definitely going to enjoy."
Whaley, a self-proclaimed "power user" of Instagram, says he always wished Instagram would let users enlarge or shrink their photos by pinching and zooming. He wanted the ability to view his Instagram photos on a bigger screen, but also at any time. He wanted his Instagram photos to be bigger, but he also wanted to facilitate the process for retrieving and viewing Instagram photos.
"Currently, no matter what platform you're on, you have to go into, let's say, your phone, unlock it, find the app, launch the app, and then you can actually start punching in things," Whaley said. "The idea [with Instacube] is that the content comes to you. It's completely passive. It becomes acceptable now to enjoy your social media in an office space, where it might not be professional or okay to go through an Instagram feed at 10 a.m. on a Monday morning."
Savannah Peterson, D2M's sunny, golden-haired marketing ninja and the "Queen Bee" on the Instacube's development, said the idea for Instacube was born at CES 2012, the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.
"We were using Instagram to document the shenanigans and all of our partying and thought it was such a nice marketing medium," Peterson told IBTimes. "Facebook and Twitter are fantastic, but there's such a different attitude you get from Instagram. And it is definitely a different platform for personal branding as well as company and corporate branding, and I think we were really both just drawn to it as a social platform."
Months after CES, Instagram reached its popularity peak when Facebook acquired the six-man company for a smooth $1 billion.
"When Facebook bought Instagram for $1 billion, we realized we weren't the only people who valued the platform," Peterson said. "When you've got software that's getting an evaluation at that level, it all seems silly to not try and build some hardware to reflect that."
Minimal Controls, Maximum Effect
In creating "the hardware for your favorite software," the Instacube team needed to figure out ways to let users interact with the device, but keep the user interface limited and simple for anyone to pick up and use.
"[The Instacube] has tactile buttons on the top that allow you to actually physically now interact with your photos," Whaley explained. "It has a 3x3 square button on top that represents a tile of photos, and when you click that, you toggle through your different [Instagram] feeds. So of course there's your own pictures, the pictures of people you follow, and the third feed, which is 'Popular.' So as you press this button, you can cycle through different streams."
The Instacube team also wanted to allow Instagram users to send photos to each other's physical 'Cubes. The solution? Since the Instacube allows users to view photos they're tagged in or any particular hashtag, Instagram users can simply tag their photos with their friends or hashtags, which can be programmed on the Instacube remotely (via Instagram) or directly (via the Hashtag button).
"No one's ever going to mail an SD card full of photos to someone," Peterson said. "But you can hashtag a group of photos directly to their Cube, or you can actually go in through the cloud and control it from afar. Or, you can just throw their Instagram handle on the message."
Relying on just three simple controls, the Wi-Fi-friendly Instacube is a big step up from digital photo frames with its simple user interface and its automatically-updating content. However, the Instacube also beats modern devices in a few important ways:
"I have a MacBook Pro, an Air, an iPad, an iPhone, an iPod Touch, and every other thing that could possibly display Instagram to me," Peterson said. "But the one thing I find that I crave to look at, that I want to be able to do separate from checking my email or seeing if someone has contacted me, is being able to ingest my Instagram images whenever I want, no matter if I'm plugged in or not."
Since Instacube is essentially a functional photo viewfinder based in the cloud, it's really easy to enjoy the entire Instagram experience on the Instacube, freeing up your device for other activities such as calling and texting. And by separating the Instagram software from the smartphone, it's much easier to casually enjoy and share your photos.
"My favorite thing about the Instacube is that my Instagram feed is now somewhat of a public thing," Whaley said. "For the first time, other people can see [my photos and my artwork], without me needing to show them my device. For the first time, I can put it on public display. For the first time, other people can walk by and see how cool the people I follow are. And it's a totally new way of using Instagram that, up until now, doesn't exist."
A Full-Service Approach
The entire Instacube team at D2M | Design to Matter hopes to raise $250,000 through Kickstarter to begin production on the device, projecting a retail price of $149 per unit. To incentivize early backers however, D2M will sell 1,000 Instacubes at the one-time price of $99 as an exclusive early-bird special on Kickstarter.
Since D2M is a full-service design consultancy -- emphasis on "full service" -- Whaley, Peterson and co. have been able to build the Instacube while simultaneously assessing the feasibility of its mechanical, electrical, and design foundations.
"There's less risk here than other Kickstarter projects," Peterson said. "Whereas a lot of people have a really great idea and maybe they have a designer or an engineer, then they go out on Kickstarter and they get the money, they then have to turn to a development team like D2M to actually execute their design and take it through the manufacturing process. We have all of those things in house."
"We do everything all the time," Whaley said. "We literally cover everything from the design to getting it out onto store shelves."
D2M has everything it needs to begin building the Instacube under one roof, but Kickstarter will essentially provide the funds to begin production. The Instacube team largely consists of mechanical and electrical engineers in Silicon Valley and abroad in Asia, and thanks to a focus on quality assurance, D2M can monitor quality coming off the line and even make last-minute engineering changes without it being overly costly.
"We have a pretty good idea of how this is going to roll out, but with Kickstarter, we're opening ourselves up to our community of users before we put the product on the shelf," Peterson said. "So if people crave something, if people say they want to have some internal memory in case their Wi-Fi goes down, well then we'll build it in there."
Despite no input from the Instagram team, D2M was able to perfectly hone in on who uses Instagram and why, and in turn, created the perfect piece of hardware to complement the lifestyles of those individuals.
As an effective means of liberating your photos from your smartphone or tablet, the Instacube has potential to be a real hit in nearly any setting, just name it: Waking up? Using the Hashtag button, Instacube can show you beautiful sunrises from around the world. Busy at work? No need to check your phone to see new photos; Instacube already has them open and ready on your desk. Having a party? Put Instacube on a coffee table and let party-goers flick through photos, or hashtag your party to see everyone's photos at once.
The Instacube may be the first truly social touchscreen device. And at a price cheaper than a Kindle Fire, a Nexus 7, or an iPad, and with an extremely simple, user-friendly interface, the Instacube may also be the next big thing in photo viewing. And we never saw it coming.