At startup Pics.io, a Ukrainian trio thinks it's time for the Web browser to take on a computing task that thus far has resisted the inexorable shift toward cloud computing: raw photo editing.
Eager for higher quality and flexibility, photography enthusiasts and pros have gravitated toward raw photos formats, which record cameras' image data directly without processing into a more convenient but limited JPEG. But handling raw photos is a processor-intensive task -- the kind of thing that Web-based software historically hasn't been good at and the kind of thing that people buy specialized software such as Adobe Systems' Lightroom for.
Pics.io, though, thinks its figured out a way to make the idea practical using a new technology for 3D graphics in the browser called WebGL.
With it, the company is planning on launching a browser-based service to let people more easily tap into raw photography with their browsers, said Konstantin Shtondenko, chief business development officer at Pics.io.
To make a business of the technology, Pics.io (pronounced "pixy-o") plans to launch a freemium online service later this year, Shtondenko said. Free users would get to use the service for a limited number of photos every month, but premium users would get an unlimited access.
The way the service works, a member can drag photos imported from a camera to the Web app running on any old computer. Photos can be edited immediately, since the browser does the work, not some server on the other side of the Internet. But the Pics.io app immediately begins uploading the shots to Google Drive.
The company has grander visions, too, including a service to match people with others who can edit or retouch their photos to make them look better or letting photographers perform edits on separate layers of an image.
Looking for funding
In the nearer term, though, the company is trying to raise $120,000. Instead of starting with private meetings with potential investors, Pics.io started with a blog post.
"It turned out pretty well," Shtondenko said. "There are plenty of angels [early-stage "angel" investors] now. They wrote us on the first day. The conversation has started."
The company got its start as an an idea from Chief Executive John Shpika, who along with Chief Technology Officer Vlad Tsepelev was working at health-care company McKesson. He wondered if it might be possible to handle medical images stored in the DICOM format in a browser. That investigation led to the startup for mainstream photography, which launched six months ago.
WebGL to the rescue
What makes Pics.io's approach possible is WebGL, which lets browsers tap into the graphics processing hardware. The company uses it to do the number-crunching that turns a raw image into something visually appealing.
"Almost every calculation on raw [imagery] is multiplication on a vector matrix," Shpika said. Pics.io does the math by running "shader" programs ordinarily designed for computer graphics, he said.
So far the company has showed tools to adjust brightness and contrast and to create sepia-tone versions of images. The tools are as responsive as Lightroom's, Shtondenko said.
WebGL is a browser-adapted version of the OpenGL interface for computer graphics. There's a related project called OpenCL that's designed to let the graphics chip do general-purpose computing, not just graphics work, and some want to see it adapted into a WebGL cousin called WebCL. That could be useful to Pics.io, but "is it's not ready yet," Shpika said. "There are some prototypes in really early stage."
The company faces plenty of challenges. Casual photographers must be convinced of the merits of shooting raw and the extra hassles it brings over JPEGs. Enthusiasts and pros must be convinced the benefits of online collaboration.
And although raw photo editing online is unusual, online photo editing is spreading. Google has built interesting tools including "auto-awesome" and subject recognition into Google+ after acquiring Nik Software and applying its own image-analysis smarts to photos. Some online photo editors such as Pixlr already are available, too.
And Adobe is showing interesting in building more cloud computing into its tools, for example with Net-synced editing on tablets or using Adobe data centers to boost the power of local image editing. Perhaps its Creative Cloud subscription will in future live up to its cloud-computing implication.
And Pics.io has plenty of work to do to create full-featured editing tools. Lightroom and competitors such as Apple Aperture are very sophisticated, fixing lens chromatic aberration, generating photo books, or adding geotags to images to show where they were taken.
Pics.io also must deal with an ugly reality of raw photos: the steadily growing collection of proprietary raw formats. Right now the company only handles images in Adobe's DNG format, though it expects to add support for Canon's CR2 or Nikon's NEF formats later.
But Pics.io has some tailwinds, too. Browsers are steadily improving as a foundation for software, and the startup takes advantage of online tools such as Amazon Web Services and Google Drive that mean it need not spend much on server hardware.
And the company has ambitions.
"We'll start with people who are casual photographers and go to semi-pro and pro photographers," Shpika said. "We have great technology and will try to adapt to any kid of photographers."