While pregnant, I imagined I’d spend maternity leave making elegant baby albums with detailed captions each month. That didn’t happen and now I have thousands of baby photos on my phone and no idea how to even begin organizing them. Created for parents who, like me, are overwhelmed by their digital memories, Precious uses artificial intelligence to help them wrangle and enjoy photos of their kids, automatically creating collages, slideshows, animations and time-lapse videos.
Founded by brothers Chris and Daniel Lau, Precious launched as Baby Art 16 months ago. The app quickly gained traction and has since acquired 54,000 paying users, up from 2,000 at launch (after a free seven-day trial, subscriptions cost $4.99 a month or $39.99 a year). Precious was part of Y Combinator’s latest batch of startups, which held its Demo Day last week.
Before launching Precious, the siblings spent several years working together on artificial intelligence-based products and saw the technology move from being available mainly for researchers to something that was in the cloud and accessible to consumers. While they were brainstorming ideas for a new app, Chris and his wife had a baby.
“Daniel saw me starting at my baby photos all the time and we felt we could make something really awesome for parents with AI,” Chris, Precious’ chief executive officer, told TechCrunch in an interview. The brothers started making trips to Babies R Us to chat with other moms and dads about what they needed.
“I think one of the coolest parts was when we were walking around and there was a dad who said I take 200 photos of my kid every day,” says Daniel, the startup’s chief technology officer. “He showed me his camera roll and it was a complete mess.”
While snapping 200 photos a day of your kid might seem a bit extreme, lots of parents have phones and cloud storage accounts crammed with pictures that aren’t the greatest, aesthetically speaking, but that they can’t bear to delete because their child will never be that little again. But then it becomes overwhelming to find specific photos.
“We drown ourselves because we can’t let them go, but it makes them impossible to use later,” says Chris, adding that one of the things mentioned by the parents he and Daniel spoke to was having “this lurking feeling, like we wish we could do more with the photos, that usually manifests when they get a coupon for a photo book. But all this joy you can get out of these photos and videos is why we take them.”
There are already a ton of baby photo apps out there, each with their own angle. These include Lifecake, which is billed as a “visual timeline,” apps like BlinkPix that make it easier to print and mail photos, and Tinybeans, a photo-sharing app that’s popular among parents who want to keep their kids’ pictures off social media. What makes Precious unique is that it uses artificial intelligence to help parents manage their photo libraries.
The app relies on facial detection to identify photos of kids and determines if photos are noisy, blurry or poorly lit to find the best pictures. For families with more than one child, Precious also considers heuristics like age and gender to differentiate between siblings. Once it decides which photos to use, the app automatically creates photo collages and albums each day. Precious also works like Timehop, Facebook Memories or Momento for baby photos, resurfacing older photos and creating milestone albums.
One of Precious’ coolest features is an automatic time lapse creator that automatically finds and aligns photos of your child’s face so you can watch them grow up in a short video. I’ve never attempted to organize the thousands of photos of my daughter on my phone, so it took Precious several days to sort through all of them and build the time lapse, but I enjoyed watching its progress every evening (and also tweaking it by removing or adding photos). Once it was done, I sent the video, which ended up being about 45 seconds long, to my family, who were all thrilled with it even though I already blast them with multiple kid photos every day. I’m not a very sentimental person, but watching my daughter morph from a newborn blob into an impish, expressive toddler felt magical and made me a bit teary. It also convinced me to subscribe.
“Finding good photos is a solved problem with AI. It’s not hard to do, but the trick now is finding photos that are meaningful,” says Chris.
“Many moms and dads aren’t really techies per say, so saying it is AI-based doesn’t mean they are really going to respond to that. It’s meaningless to them,” he adds. “So we show them things that they will get like the time lapse and tell them that it’s easy. That’s the differentiator for them.”
Other plans include taking advantage of artificial neural networks in newer smartphone software and moving more of Precious’ scanning technology onto phones, instead of sending photos to the cloud for processing, so the app will work faster and use less battery power. The Lau brothers want to make accounts sharable so photos from moms, dads, grandparents and caretakers can be gathered and organized, and add a printing feature that lets users create and order physical photo albums from the app.
Precious, which is currently self-funded aside from the financing it received as part of Y Combinator’s program, will also introduce a free version with premium services, but the startup will continue to rely on its subscription model instead of showing targeted ads or selling data to third parties. One of the reasons for this is privacy, which is especially important for photos of children. The Lau brothers want to add photo storage options eventually but say “we aren’t keeping photos until we can do it right.”
“I’m a parent and obviously I don’t want my kids’ stuff ending up on the Internet outside of my control. That’s another reason we wanted to build this because it’s a key hurdle that keeps parents from sharing photos more easily. Our business is not to sell you ads. We want to be paid for providing a good service and that’s it,” says Chris, adding “you are not the product, our product is the product and we’ve proven that works here. That’s why we are excited to make something that says what it will do and keep things private, but is still easy and convenient.”