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Share Your Photos, Not Your Phone

October 8, 2014 | By Microsoft blog editor

Posted by Rob Knies

Project team shares a Xim experience

Editor's note: Xim 1.3, released December 17, 2014, extends photo-sharing to large screens via a host of streaming media devices.

How easy is it to share these days? Pretty darned easy, as users of any mobile phone can attest. Take a photo, and a couple of clicks later, your shot is posted to Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram, to name a few options.

It can’t get much faster than that, can it?

For certain scenarios, perhaps it can, says Steve Ickman, from FUSE Labs, who came up with the idea for Xim.

“Our goals with Xim,” Ickman says, “is to change the way people share in the moment.”

Today, with the release of Xim, a free app for Windows Phones and Android phones, and coming soon to iPhones, sharing just got easier. This new technology enhances social interactions and experiences by enabling nearly effortless photo sharing, be it face-to-face or in a remote setting.

Ickman, a software-design engineer who works for FUSE, part of Microsoft Research, got the idea for Xim in the summer of 2013.

“Xim started with a prototype I built during one of our hackathons,” he says. “My original goal was to let you share what’s on your phone to another display, like a TV or a PC. But to demo it, I usually ended up just sharing it to someone else’s phone, out of convenience.

“I quickly realized that was the more interesting scenario and made that the focus.”

That established the path toward what Xim delivers: fun, interactive photo sharing that avoids common pitfalls that afflict those who want to share photos today: passing a phone around in a group, one viewer at a time, or the chance of mistakenly oversharing, whether it’s a personal photo you didn’t intend for others to see or just handling someone else’s grimy, fingerprint-smeared phone.

Instead, Xim—pronounced zim—synchronizes the experience for multiple phones in real time—and you don’t need to have the app to participate, just to start the experience.

Initially, Xim requires a phone number from the United States or Canada, and then you can use email to Xim to anyone with a smartphone. The person who has Xim can pick a single photo or as many as 50, from a camera roll or from a service, then choose whom to invite and start Xim, which sends invitations via text or email.

The result is an open, interactive instance of sharing, as participants can swipe, pan, and zoom together to explore and admire the same image at the same time.

The Xim system relies on the cloud, but a Xim photo-sharing session isn’t permanent. Photos persist for about an hour—a Snapchat wannabe this is not—but there is no requirement to manage or store the Xims.

“Today, we all carry around these powerful smartphones that connect to the cloud and can pull in content from anywhere,” Ickman says. “Yet if you and I are standing next to each other, and I want to share with you some photos or a post on social media, I have to jump through a bunch of hoops. I often need to know what type of device you have, if you have the right app installed, or what your screen name is.

“With Xim, we wanted to remove as many of those hurdles as possible and create a platform for having shared experiences that span multiple devices. Photo sharing seemed like a natural first experience to focus on.”

Interestingly, while it’s not necessary for more than one person in a group of friends to have Xim to share in its benefits, if more than one does, they also can add content to the Xim.

“Originally, we experimented with all sorts of techniques for connecting devices, such as NFC or QR codes,” Ickman says. “I think the real breakthrough for Xim came when we had the epiphany to just leverage the user’s contacts list and use SMS and email as the channel for getting everyone connected. This directly led to our core pillar: only one person needs the app, and you can Xim to anyone on any device.”

The work on Xim fits neatly into FUSE Labs’ mission of exploring how people interact in online and mobile environments. The group aims to expand the knowledge of how social networks function to help enable Microsoft Research’s commitment to advancing technology that helps people connect with their local and global communities.

Xim provides an interface for people to engage with the social fabric of their daily lives and, as such, is sure to receive more attention in the months to come for Ickman and his colleagues on the project—Andrea Orimoto, Colleen Estrada, Hai Liu, Lars Liden, Rony Thomas, Sarah Needham, and Shahin Shayandeh.

“We have a lot of ideas for Xim,” he says. “We want to simplify the way you get large groups of people quickly connected and into a Xim. We have ideas for experiences that span multiple devices, such as my tablet and my phone.

“There are also a number of experiences we could do beyond photo sharing that are interesting. It should be fun!”