There is no shortage of apps that allow you to upload and share photos with a few taps on your phone. Facebook, Dropbox, and Instagram, among many others, have made this task easier than ever. But just because you can do this from your phone doesn't mean that's the best way to share photos, according to Alan Chan, the CEO and co-founder of smart photo album startup Joy.

With Joy, which launches Tuesday, Chan set out to create a product that combines the ease of sharing and viewing photos digitally--but also brings back the sense of nostalgia and attachment you get from a physical photo album.

The idea came to him in March 2015, when his first daughter, Liv, was born, and he wanted an easier way to share photos of the newborn with far-away family and friends. At first, Chan thought about creating another app. (Just two years prior, he has sold his URL shortening app Bread to Yahoo.) But then he reflected on the fact that his wife Mimi's childhood home had burned down a year earlier. No one was injured in the fire, but it did make Chan and his wife rethink the symbolic importance of physical objects.

"They always say, 'When your house is on fire, what do you grab?'" Chan says. It used to be, of course, that you had a tangible object that was laden with memories and meaning.

Joy is certainly not the only company trying to bring the photo album into the 21st century. Shutterfly, Mixbook, and a number of other startups offer easy ways to upload digital photos and turn them into physical books. Chan wanted the best of both mediums, however, so he wanted the end product to be a physical device with the benefits of digital photo-sharing.

The hardware portion of Joy consists of two parts: the album itself, which has a roughly 13-inch touchscreen--making it large enough for multiple people to view photos at once--and a wedge-shape, magnetic charging stand that holds the screen at an angle. The shape of Joy is intentional and it makes the device easier to balance. Joe Moak, a former Sonos engineer and Joy's SVP of hardware, led the design process of these two components. Moak is also listed as a co-founder of Joy, as are Joy's head of marketing and product, Jacqueline Yuen, and its CTO, Jonathan Rainey.

The software portion of Joy allows you to pull photos, GIFs, videos, and panoramas from any photo-sharing app, and save and view them on the device. Joy also gives you the option to share photos via email, by simply drafting a message to friends and family and CC'ing a Joy general help email address. (Chan says that this feature was designed for his mom, who "only knows how to check email on her computer.")

Joy is a slick-looking device and it's easy to see why it might appeal to an older demographic that hasn't adopted smartphones for taking and viewing photos. Still, the startup faces some significant hurdles to gain traction.

At $499 each (though you can get one for a discounted price of $299 for a limited time), Joy is a much pricier way to share photos than Instagram or Facebook. It might be a particularly tough sell for consumers who already own a tablet--a device that can do much more than a souped-up digital album.

Chan is confident that Joy, with its features that emphasize experiencing photos with others, can stand out. For instance, Joy has a StoryTime feature that allows users to view photos via screenshare and simultaneously communicate by voice chat, to try to evoke that experience of looking at an album with others even when you're not in the same place. So far, Joy has received a vote of confidence and $2.5 million in seed funding from investors including Twitter co-founder Ev Williams's Obvious Ventures, as well as the Chernin Group and BoxGroup.

"We really think that we've designed a device that can remove all barriers between you and your stories," Chan says.

Published on: Oct 18, 2016