Ottawa coder, photographer hope new app will be game changer for snapping 3D pics

Ottawa coder Abdou Sarr (left) and photographer Mo Alissa (right) are pictured here at Ottawa city hall on Aug. 27, 2018. The two 20-year-old friends say their new photo app, FILM3D, will allow people to easily capture 3D pictures on their smartphones. Beatrice Britneff / Global News

A young Ottawa software developer, who made headlines three years ago for launching a relaxation app at age 17, is back with a tech tool he and his co-designer say will give people the ability to capture 3D pictures on their smartphones — without any special equipment and at no cost.

In nine months, Abdou Sarr, now a third-year student in Carleton University‘s computer science program, and Ottawa-raised photographer and student Mo Alissa have built a new, free photography app that enables users to snap a 3D image (like this), apply a filter to the picture, and share it to their social media accounts — all in a matter of seconds.

“We wanted it to be so easy that your grandparents could pick up the phone and start taking 3D photos,” said Sarr, whose first app, Celestial, was ranked among the top 50 health apps in North America in 2015.

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Normally, capturing proper 3D pictures can take a significant amount of time and money. In terms of equipment, the two 20-year-old friends say you can either use or a Nimslo or a Nishika N8000 — both vintage film cameras with four lenses — which can cost hundreds of dollars and be tough to track down.

Even with one of those cameras, Alissa said, it’s a lengthy process to develop the film and then stitch the images together in an editing program like Photoshop to create the 3D effect. It’s doable with a DSLR as well, he said — but again, those digital cameras are expensive.

Their new app, called FILM3D, aims to completely economize, simplify and speed up that method.

Using the beta version of the app, Sarr demonstrated how it works. You open up the program on your iPhone — the Android version is in the works, they said — and take a sliding picture, from left to right, using the in-app camera function. (You can’t import photos into the program).

You then choose a focus point that will remain still while the rest of the image swivels, so to speak. And within a second or two, the app’s “secret sauce” will process and spit out a “moving” picture that resembles a GIF, but is actually a 3D sequence.

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To their knowledge, this is the first app of its kind. Sarr said there are a few similar apps out there, but he said the ones he’s seen don’t emulate the technology of the old 3D cameras. He said they use a swivel motion for the photo capture and play back the image like a “looping video.”

“We’re actually stitching the photos together using some pretty crazy technologies to really make it as close to the 3D camera as possible,” the Ottawa native said.

Users can also apply a filter to their 3D photo through the app, if they want. They will be able to pick from two free filters and four others will be available to purchase.

The names of the six filters — all designed to give a true film feel to the images — pay homage to their families’ respective home countries, cities and area codes. Sarr’s parents immigrated to Canada from Senegal in the 1990s, which is the story behind filter SEN 221. Another filter is called MLT 314 — a nod to Alissa’s mother’s home country of Malta. A third is called TRP 21 after the area in Tripoli, Libya, where Alissa’s family lived before moving to Montreal.

Ottawa coder Abdou Sarr provides a sneak peak of a new photo app called FILM3D he developed with local photographer Mo Alissa. The two 20-year-old friends say the free app will allow people to easily capture 3D pictures on their smartphones. Beatrice Britneff / Global News

If they want, a user can toggle a switch to shift from 3D to 2D mode, Sarr said — and for anyone who needs help, there will be in-app guides and a “how to” video.

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So, with a 2D capture option and filters, are the two Ottawa creatives trying to take down Instagram? That’s a no, they insist. They want photo-sharing platforms like Instagram and Snapchat to see them as a “companion” and not a competitor.

Sarr and Alissa say they see their app as a “creative tool” to help “enhance” people’s Instagram experience — any FILM3D images can be shared straight to Instagram — and their social media experience, more generally.

The app is set to launch globally on the App Store sometime this week. Yet the two young men don’t want to say exactly when because a surprise drop is part of their release plans. (Their Instagram account for FILM3D is also locked down until the app is launched.)

How FILM3D came together

Sarr and Alissa had been thinking about developing some kind of photography app and brainstorming for some time. In November, the two students took serious notice of how 3D images were being featured in music videos and met up at a Starbucks one day to talk about it.

Alissa showed Sarr how to create the 3D effect with his camera — and that’s when inspiration struck, they said.

“A DSLR has one lens and a phone has one lens, so we were like, ‘Oh, this could be easily made into an app,'” said Alissa, a third-year business and law student at Carleton, who has photographed famous rappers like Jaden Smith, ASAP Rocky, Travis Scott and Post Malone.

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“It wasn’t that easy, though,” he quickly added, laughing.

“We heard the phrase, ‘this is impossible,’ a lot,” Sarr said.

The app might not have come together in a flash — but Sarr and Alissa said they fast-tracked a process that might normally take about two years into nine months. In that time, Alissa said he estimates the two of them have dedicated 80 or more hours a week to the app, often working out of a room at Carleton and watching the sun go down and then up again, all the while juggling their academic studies and side gigs.

They engaged the help of 15 to 20 other engineers and designers from across the world — contracts paid for with their own money — and made a point of never sitting on a bug or a problem when it came up.

When they sat down with Global News on Monday, the two students had just woken up after pulling another all-nighter and were preparing to submit their final version to Apple’s App Store that evening.

But they’ve already been testing the waters for a couple weeks. In mid-August, the local coder and photographer opened up early access to FILM3D for 250 users to test. They’ve also been teasing the app on Twitter and Reddit and have even released a trailer.

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The feedback they’ve received from the small early access group, which they’re dubbed their “FILM3D family,” has been “super helpful” and positive, they said. They believe people are truly hyped for the app’s release and eager to try it out. Comments on Reddit indicate that’s the case.

Sarr said anyone interested in the launch should “watch Instagram closely” because they’ve recruited some notable individuals — including a high-profile, California-based photographer — to participate in the rollout.

A ‘good team’ with ‘big plans’

For Sarr and Alissa, their respectively passions for coding and photography started young and quickly transformed from hobbies into professions.

Sarr said he began coding in Grade 4, driven by a passion for airplanes and how their software worked. His interest in the business side of software development came later, as he began exploring apps on the App Store and discovering “a whole intersection of business, marketing, design and coding.”

He said he’s built a number of apps, but Celestial was the first to be released on the App Store.

Alissa said he got his first camera at 11 years old and started out by taking pictures of his relatives. That evolved into photographing friends of his who were musicians, who then took him to music festivals, where he would often “sneak backstage.” He’s since shot major festivals like Bluesfest and this summer, Osheaga in Montreal.

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Click to play video: 'Bird nest at Ottawa music fest has organizer singing the blues'
Bird nest at Ottawa music fest has organizer singing the blues

Sarr and Alissa’s friendship dates back to high school, where they both tried out for the senior curling team at Sir Robert Borden High School as a joke — and made the team. They continued on into university and knew at some point they wanted to join forces on a project, combining their backgrounds in coding and photography.

“We always knew we were a good team,” Alissa said.

Together, they co-founded MODU Research Corp. earlier this year. The FILM3D app is their company’s first product — and they say they have “a lot of big plans” for more projects. Sarr said they’re also in talks with a few different charities about donating a portion of their sales from FILM3D.

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Sarr and Alissa are hosting a launch presentation Wednesday evening at Richcraft Hall, room 2200, on the Carleton University campus. They said they organized the event to show family and friends what they’ve been slaving over for nearly a year and how it came together.

“I don’t think my mom knows yet,” Alissa laughed.

The FILM3D presentation starts at 8:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Aug. 29. Sarr and Alissa are asking guests to RSVP on the MODU Research website.

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