Dom Hofmann grew up in an earlier era of software development, and spent his youth cobbling together creative projects using the tools of the day. There was Visual Basic for beginner-level programming, Dreamweaver for web publishing, and Mario Paint on the Super Nintendo for drawing and making music. Tools like these encouraged a certain kind of aimless hacking, and Hofmann embraced it when he began making software of his own. The result was Vine, an app for recording looping, 6-second videos that he built with Rus Yusupov and Colin Kroll. Twitter executives liked it so much they bought it for a reported $30 million before it even left beta.
Vine went on to become a popular venue for comedy, music, and sports clips, among other things. Hofmann quit Vine in the fall of 2013, but he remained fascinated by creative tools. Hofmann noted that his younger brother, who is 14, had almost no experience using a computer that wasn’t a smartphone. He wondered whether he could take the creative tools of his youth and shrink them down to something that would fit on an iPhone.
Byte aims to destroy the notion of constraints and see what emerges from the chaos
Hofmann’s tinkering led him to create Byte, an impressively ambitious mobile app for iPhone that enters a private beta today. (It’s scheduled to open to the public later in July; an Android version is coming later this year.) Byte is a creative tool and a social network. Mostly, though, it’s a playground: if Vine encourages creativity by giving you constraints, Byte aims to destroy the notion of constraints and see what emerges from the chaos.
The most familiar thing about Byte is its basic structure. As on Vine or Instagram before it, there’s a feed of creations from the people you follow, an activity feed, and a place to edit your profile. Byte’s take on discovery is a rocket-shaped button that takes you to "worlds," which are themed collections of content that can be about anything. (Think subreddits.)
But the heart of Byte is its creation tool, which you’ll find at the center of the bottom row of buttons when you open the app. Tap it, and you’ll find a gradient of randomly chosen colors as your canvas. Tap again on the canvas, and a staircase of buttons pops up. On the bottom right, there’s a camera you can use to take photos and insert them into your creation. As on Snapchat, there are tools for adding text or drawing with your finger.
A music feature inspired by Mario Paint
One of Byte’s more original features is a "soundtrack" button, which lets you create miniature, looping synths that play inside your creations. You build them using trial and error, placing emoji on a grid. The feature was inspired by Mario Paint’s composer, and as with that game, it’s designed to be forgiving. "You can’t really make anything that sounds bad unless you’re trying," Hofmann says.
Byte’s most ambitious tool, though, is the computer — an app launcher within the app that lets you pull a variety of images, text, and memes into your Bytes. An app called Trendy pulls in news headlines; Drizzy surfaces Drake-related quotes and images; Weather does as you would expect.
The content is selected at random, but you can cycle through it by tapping arrows on either side of the rectangle that houses the content. And more options are coming to the computer: Hofmann plans to let developers write their own apps for Byte using an API.
A nightmare GIF party straight out of GeoCities 1998
For my first Byte, I snapped a photo of myself, added several looping GIFs of swimming dolphins, and wrote out "Dolphin Party" in text. Using a magic wand tool, I added a fireworks effect to the text, causing it to constantly shoot out smaller versions of itself. The result looked like a nightmare GIF party straight out of GeoCities 1998, and I was quite pleased.
My original dolphin party, right, and Hofmann's remix of it, left.
There’s lots more you can do with a completed Byte. You can remix it, scrambling its constituent parts and adding new elements of your own. You can share it to Instagram, Vine, or the web, or just save it to your camera roll. And Hofmann says there’s much more on the way, including a feature called "blocks" that will introduce programming capabilities into Byte using the same grid-based interface the music feature uses.
It’s wildly different from the simple tap-and-hold simplicity of Vine, but Hofmann says there’s a spiritual connection. Vine was about time as a storytelling device, he says, and Byte is about space. "Most people are not used to arranging things" using software, he says. "Most things don’t make it easy enough to do that."
There are a couple other big ideas here. One is that the line between applications and the media they create is getting blurrier and blurrier. Byte represents an effort to blur it further. "A perfect user interface that’s super designed and made up of a couple colors — that’s something that evolved out of older computers that couldn’t really do that much," he says. "That was the best they could do with a GUI. But there’s no reason that a UI couldn’t be a piece of media."
"There's no reason a UI couldn't be a piece of media."
The other big idea goes back to space. The nine-person Byte team, which has raised an undisclosed amount of money, has already started to think about bringing Bytes into the third dimension. They might develop it for HoloLens, or they might develop it for Oculus. "We want to end up in 3D," Hofmann says. That starts with letting people play with space on their phone, but they expect it will expand to other hardware in time.
Most creative tools struggle to find large audiences on mobile devices, even when they come from prominent developers. Super, an app for making tiny emotional postcards from Twitter co-founder Biz Stone, has languished. Mixel, a collage-making app that also lets you import images from the web and remix creations by you and others, shut down for lack of use. Byte reminds me most of NewHive, a similarly unconstrained canvas for creative expression that opened last year. Like Byte, NewHive is a garish neon wonderland, chockablock with text and GIFs and memes. But while the art posted there is often beautiful, it’s not clear how broadly it’s resonating. (NewHive isn’t in the top 100,000 websites tracked by Alexa.)
Hofmann says his ambitions for Byte are modest. "The expectation is not for it to be really, really big," he says. "I think it’s going to be a slow burn." Whatever happens, Byte is well worth checking out. Desktop-era creative tools are migrating slowly to our mobile devices, and the results are getting weird.