Real time! Location-based! Photo-sharing! It's a mix made in venture capital heaven, and, indeed, the VC's came crawling at the feet of Color, a new social networking app that's getting a ton of buzz.

Color is a photo sharing app founded by Bill Nguyen, a serial entrepreneur who most recently sold the streaming music service Lala to Apple in 2009. With Color, available today for iOS and Android, Nguyen and his cohorts are hoping to reinvent not only the way we take and consume photos, but how we think about social networking in a post-PC era. Yesterday, it was announced that Color Labs, Inc. had raised a whopping $41 million from well-regarded venture capital firms Sequoia Capital and Bain before the app even launched.

So What is it?

Color is a new way to take and view photos of the world around you. You don't have to make a username or password or find friends or anything like that. You just put in your first name and are immediately treated to real-time photo and video streams from all the people within 150 feet of you who also use the app. Those people will also get streams of the photos and videos you've taken. Color calls this location based network of smart phone cameras the "multilens." Color groups people at a given place (restaurant) or event (concert) by sampling data from your smart phone's light and audio sensors in addition to GPS. Once a person leaves your proximity, you no longer get access to their photo stream, or "visual diary." But all the photos they took while you shared the same "multilens" are yours to keep and become a part of your own visual diary. Like Lala, Color relies heavily on the cloud, so you never have to worry about the photos and videos you accumulate taking up precious harddrive space.

If you frequently share the same space with someone, Color's algorithms will place that person's photos in your "bulletin," a newsfeed-like area where you get updates from people you may know or be interested in. These people become a part of your "elastic network," and you can see the photos they've taken regardless of whether they're in your proximity or not. If you stop hanging out with someone, they will fall out of your elastic network.

All the photos and videos taken on Color are geotagged and public forever. Anyone can look up a place and see all the photos taken there by Color users. You can delete a photo after you've taken it, but you don't get any control over who sees what. Like Twitter, you shouldn't put anything on Color unless you want the world to see it. Pervs, Color says, will be punished.

Why Does it Matter?

There are a lot of photo-sharing apps, to be sure. But none of them reflect Color's spirit of radical openness and location-based networking. Unlike many other social networks, Color isn't about tapping into pre-existing connections with friends or colleagues-- its real strength is helping strangers team up to document the world around them in real time. If Color pans out, everyone will be able to have a visual diary of significant events in their lives, effortlessly leveraging not only their own photo evidence but that of others who were there. That means no more waiting to be tagged in an album a month after the party. Conversely, the world will get access to an ever-expanding visual history of particular places and events-- one that's easy to access and will live forever in the cloud. Color's founders view the app as a public service, and its implications for news gathering are probably Twitter-sized... at least.


Of course, there are a couple of key hurdles that will have to be overcome before Color can really be worth $41 million to anyone. Because Color is so dependent on community, to succeed it will have to catch on and become adopted very widely. Logging in to an app that shows photos is pointless if there are no photos to show. And because things are so open, some users could be reluctant to start volunteering their pictures to the world.

Then there's the question of utility: how often will it be valuable for me to receive other people's photos of things that are ostensibly all around me? At parties and protests, sure, but what about everyday life?

As far as commerce goes, Nguyen and co. unsurprisingly haven't quite ironed out a revenue model. One idea being batted around is letting businesses pay to have their own images appear in the multilenses of people near by. This would be somewhere in between the advertising models used by Foursquare and Twitter. Of course, just as likely (probably moreso) as Color becoming a money-making entity in itself is it being bought out by another more established business. It's easy to see the Googles and Facebooks of the world as next in line to throw money at an app like this... that is if Color can keep its bright ideas from fading in the harsh light of day.

[Wired, Fast Company, Forbes, CNET]