Just last year, Jesse Shapins was in charge of an interactive production studio that made over $1 million in revenue in 18 months. The firm was building projects like the Austin Music Map, which was nominated for a Webby.
But when Shapins and his team were accepted into Matter in February, a new startup accelerator for media companies, they decided to close down the studio and start fresh — with a company that would be called Zeega, that would aim a lot higher in its potential reach. Zeega is trying to build a mobile multimedia tool that rethinks how user participation on a smartphone can affect our experience with audio and images.
“We just all got excited about the generative potential and the scale of impact that this could have,” Shapins told me. We sat in Matter’s light, open industrial building in SOMA on Thursday, where we talked about the company’s overarching goal, and where it’s headed next now that the June demo day is behind them.
“In a sense, looking at the landscape of social media, and the rise of Facebook and Instagram, it’s all very much about documenting our personal lives. Which is obviously super powerful. But then Tumblr and Pinterest introduced the notion that you can express yourself really powerfully though animation or other images as well. That these images say something about who I am.”
In its simplest form, Zeega is a (currently) desktop-only tool that allows you to pick a music track from Soundcloud and then add GIFs and images on top of the music to create a hybrid video/slideshow. What makes the finished product (which is also called a Zeega) interesting, is that the user interacts with it by swiping the screen to go from GIF to GIF. So it doesn’t auto-play like a video, but it’s also much more lively and interactive than a simple audio slideshow. And it relies on the user’s gestures to set the pace of storytelling.
“Because it’s all at your own pace, it’s much more optimal for how we’re used to using our phones. It’s such a personal device, I’m used to touching it. I don’t just want to sit here and watch it,” Shapins told me, showing how awkward it is to hold your phone out in front of you to watch a video play. “So it provides that interactive satisfaction, but because that audio plays continuously, it has that immersive-like feel.”
When you go to create a Zeega, there’s a box on the left-hand site of the screen where you can search for music, GIFs, and photos. Once you have your music picked, you drag and drop any of those items into pages, and a Zeega can have as many pages as you want. Once you’re done, you have the option to embed it anywhere on the web, or share via social media to sites including Twitter, Facebook or Tumblr. Here’s what it looks like when you go to build one:
I was immediately skeptical about a few things: One, that anyone would take the time to put together a Zeega. Two, that anyone really needs another multimedia app if they have Instagram and Vine. And three, that the final products would be that interesting to watch. But after looking at the ways people have used Zeega and then making my own, I saw the potential in what Shapins is doing.
It is surprisingly fun to create a Zeega. Just picking which Beyonce GIF I wanted to use for the first shot was challenging enough (I ended up using two), and when I finished, it wasn’t beautiful, but I instantly sent it to friends who I knew would find my selections funny. And in watching the final products on mobile, and tapping through with my thumb, I could see how the format is different than anything I’d seen before — particularly on Vine or Instagram. I immediately thought that teenagers used to Tumblr, Snapchat or Buzzfeed would love this product.
“It’s much more interesting to have some agency over your experience,” Shapins said.
Here’s how some teenagers used Zeega to express how they feel about graduation (complete with typing in a Facebook status bar):
Here’s a photojournalist who used Zeega to display his portfolio:
Here’s The Wilderness Society creating a Zeega to inform people about saving nature (note that by letting the user control the speed of pace, you have time to read all the text):
And finally here’s a Zeega from a new Daft Punk song, created by Lizzy Acker of KQED (one of Matter’s investors), that became popular among Daft Punk fans:
And finally, don’t laugh, here’s my Zeega attempt: