Google made an iPhone app that turns Live Photos into amazing GIFs

My entire picture library is inside Google Photos, which for a long time made Apple’s Live Photos feature on my iPhone 6S Plus rather useless. Google didn’t support the format until March, so if I wanted to preserve them before then, it required converting each Live Photo to a GIF using a third-party app, saving it to my phone’s gallery again, and deleting the original. Then it would get backed up to Google Photos as a GIF, which is something you can share far beyond Apple’s ecosystem. That’s why I still go the GIF route even now.

Until today, I’d been using an app called Lively to handle that flow, but Google just released its own app that does exactly the same thing. It’s called Motion Stills, which is a little awkward and contradictory but also a great counter to “Live Photos.” Google’s approach, developed within the company’s research lab, is actually way cooler than a basic Live Photos to GIF converter. Motion Stills uses its own video stabilization algorithms to take what might otherwise be a shaky Live Photo and turn it into a smooth GIF that you’ll actually want to see repeat. Like this:

How does Google manipulate your original Live Photo and turn it into that? Here’s how the blog post explains it:

We pioneered this technology by stabilizing hundreds of millions of videos and creating GIF animations from photo bursts. Our algorithm uses linear programming to compute a virtual camera path that is optimized to recast videos and bursts as if they were filmed using stabilization equipment, yielding a still background or creating cinematic pans to remove shakiness.

Our challenge was to take technology designed to run distributed in a data center and shrink it down to run even faster on your mobile phone. We achieved a 40x speedup by using techniques such as temporal subsampling, decoupling of motion parameters, and using Google Research’s custom linear solver, GLOP. We obtain further speedup and conserve storage by computing low-resolution warp textures to perform real-time GPU rendering, just like in a videogame.

There’s more to it than that, even. Here’s more from Google (emphasis ours):

Short videos are perfect for creating loops, so we added loop optimization to bring out the best in your captures. Our approach identifies optimal start and end points, and also discards blurry frames. As an added benefit, this fixes “pocket shots” (footage of the phone being put back into the pocket)

To keep the background steady while looping, Motion Stills has to separate the background from the rest of the scene. This is a difficult task when foreground elements occlude significant portions of the video, as in the example below. Our novel method classifies motion vectors into foreground (red) and background (green) in a temporally consistent manner. We use a cascade of motion models, moving our motion estimation from simple to more complex models and biasing our results along the way.

Google notes multiple times that Motion Stills doesn’t require any kind of data connection to work; all the processing is on-device. And no, you don’t even need a Google account to use it. Once a GIF is made, you can send it to someone in a message, email, or share to another app. And Motion Stills also lets you tack multiple Live Photos together. In that case, it creates a proper movie file (with audio) instead of a GIF. You can do that even if you’re converting a single Live Photo, too.

Motion Photos is available for free from the App Store now. I’ve only tried it a couple times and don’t really have any Live Photos that would seriously test the stabilization, but even so, this app probably just earned a permanent spot on my iPhone. And I’ll probably keep Lively around in case Google’s stabilization magic does weird things. Either way, to me, GIFs are better than Live Photos — unless you really need the sound.

Correction June 7th 4:05PM ET: The article originally stated that Google Photos doesn’t support Live Photos. In fact, Live Photos support was introduced in March. Still, I’m a GIF person, myself.

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