Hyperlapse For iPhone Will Revolutionize Wildlife Films

Flowers of European ivy (CC BY-SA 2.0: Albert Bridge / Wikimedia)

As a biologist, my first thought after hearing about Hyperlapse - Instagram's new app for making time-lapse movies - was this: nature videos.

Hyperlapse records a film and shows frames at intervals so it looks like time has elapsed quickly. The app is simple to use. Tap a button to start and stop recording, swipe a slider to set the playback speed (up to x12 normal) then tap to save the clip to your phone and/or share it on Facebook or Instagram.

The promotional trailer focuses on how the app can be used to document our daily lives. But who wants to watch boring, self-obsessed humans? At 30 seconds into the trailer, you see seagulls on a beach, hinting at a far more interesting use for Hyperlapse - capturing wildlife.

I don't normally quote poetry, but time-lapse wildlife clips made me think of 'Leisure' by Welsh writer (and former hobo) WH Davies. Here's the first half of the poem:

What is this life if, full of care, We have no time to stand and stare. No time to stand beneath the boughs And stare as long as sheep or cows. No time to see, when woods we pass, Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.

We'll watch YouTube videos of cats doing cute and funny things for a few minutes (yeah, okay, hours), but rarely make time in our busy lives to stare at creatures going about their business in our own backyards - raccoons and foxes raiding garbage cans, birds feeding chicks, squirrels hiding their nuts.

Whereas detecting rapid movements is limited by the speed of our visual system, appreciating the slower things in life is limited by our attention span. Hyperlapse could help us better understand the bustling world around us by condensing the behaviour of animals and plants into short, easy-to-watch videos.

Filming time-lapse movies is also less hassle than the hours it might take a professional wildlife filmmaker to set-up expensive equipment. Simply pull out your smartphone and tap to start recording.

Hyperlapse does more than simply pull together film frames though, it actually captures motion time-lapse video using stabilisation technology. Record while moving and the app corrects for the shaky-cam effect.

Few would sit through a half-hour home movie of dolphins following your boat while on holiday, but speed it up x12 and people might happily spend 2 minutes 30 seconds watching the mammals as they repeatedly leap from the water.

Applications And Limitations

The potential number of time-lapse videos is enormous. For now, Hyperlapse is only available for iOS devices, which limits its user base to (at most) Apple's 12% market share for smartphones. Once the app becomes available for Android, you can add another 85%.

As well as creating millions of amateur wildlife filmmakers, biologists will gain an army of voluntary field assistants. Their time-lapse videos might even offer researchers new insights into animal and plant behaviour. In both cases, it won't be long before we see crowdsourced science and movie projects.

But there are limitations to filming nature's movements. Hyperlapse only captures up to 45 minutes of footage on an iPhone 5 (or 10 minutes on an iPhone 4). And even if you could record for longer, the length of videos is restricted by a phone's battery life or memory size. (Although Hyperlapse can be used on iPad too, I suspect that a squirrel would be more likely to notice you trying to film the location of their secret stash if you whip out a 10-inch tablet.)

While you won't be able to record your house plant growing, you could film its petals as they unfold. Flower opening can be quick: a mere five minutes in European Ivy, for example, or a 30-second time-lapse clip.

It's Hyperlapse's simplicity that will make it successful. One reason why Instagram became so popular is that users don't need to worry too much about composition or lighting - Instagram's filters create a good-looking photo. Hyperlapse saves people the hassle of pushing a recorded clip through another app. And it's free.

The most annoying missing feature in the app is that it currently doesn't give the option of saving both the original and time-lapsed video. It's one or the other. That might limit a clip's usefulness in science because if a researcher wanted to slow-down a video to normal speed to study something in detail, there would be few frames to study. Nonetheless, it's still better than the technology that's often used, webcams that periodically take pictures.

Phone, Camera, Action!

I hope that recording time-lapse nature videos becomes a new hobby for everyone, just like amateur wildlife photography.

This post, then, is a call to action: tag your clips with #hyperlife and I'll retweet them on Twitter and Instagram. Here's a video to inspire you:

JV Chamary is a biologist and writer - follow him on Google+ and Twitter


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