New Tech Wirelessly Sends Photos Across Devices Without a Network

LiveDrop Demo

Take away WiFi, Bluetooth, and basically any other network protocol, and how do you transfer a photo from one smartphone to another? That’s where LiveDrop comes in.

It’s a free app that uses what can best be described as a moving QR code to enable the transfer from one smartphone to another all without the phones actually connecting to each other or a wireless network.

Netherlands-based LiveDrop first unveiled the new app at CES 2024 in Las Vegas with Dutch royalty in attendance, as Prince Constantijn was on hand to be the first to receive a photo on LiveDrop entirely offline. To demonstrate this, both phones in the demo were in Airplane mode with Wi-Fi and Bluetooth turned off.

It’s also cross-platform, so it doesn’t matter whether either device is running on iOS or Android. The simplicity and openness involved should theoretically address the many pain points of sharing images between platforms, so PetaPixel looked into LiveDrop to see how it actually works and where the caveats lie.

How the Transfers Actually Happen

The biggest catch, at least for now, is that file transfer speeds are limited to a paltry 250 Kbps, though LiveDrop CEO Patrick Moreu told PetaPixel the plan is to increase that to 1 Mbps sometime in 2024.

Why so slow? It’s worth noting 1 Mbps is about the typical transfer speed for Bluetooth, which has never been a great way to transfer photos because it requires a digital handshake between the two devices. If one of the phones is already paired with something else, it can wreak havoc on the efficacy of the connection. Needless to say, it’s clunky and why few phone manufacturers even say much about it despite offering it as a feature for years.

LiveDrop Demo

LiveDrop does away with the digital handshake because the two devices aren’t actually communicating at all. No pairing means no fuss. You choose the image you want to share through the app and it generates a moving QR code for the other person to read from the LiveDrop app on their phone.

LiveDrop Demo

While it looks like a QR code, it isn’t exactly the same thing. I’m just calling it a “moving QR code” because it resembles the static or “snow” from a scrambled TV channel of the past. The small squares inside the code constantly move, essentially a data matrix that is the actual file itself. Once received on the phone scanning it, the app descrambles the code to produce the file.

Technically, there is no file size limit, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the same exact file size transfers over. For example, I sent a 14MB high-resolution photo from a Google Pixel 8 Pro that resulted in a 50kb file on the receiving iPhone 15 Pro.

When asked about the compression, Moreu said the sender device compresses the file, which is around 50kb at this stage, though LiveDrop ultimately controls the compression rate in its app. It could raise it anytime, or a client using the underlying technology easily could as well. The idea is that a higher transfer speed would require less compression because sending larger images takes longer to finish. Right now, the concept is to prove that it’s possible to send images and files over offline “within seconds,” the lack of quality notwithstanding.

He also says there is a SDK (software developer kit) any business can purchase and use that wouldn’t be subject to the same limits, meaning larger files could work based on the parameters they choose to set themselves. It’s also still a one-to-one approach, meaning one file at a time, though that could eventually change as well depending on transfer speeds.

LiveDrop Demo

Screen refresh rates can play a role too. Most screens, be they phones or otherwise, have at least 60Hz refresh rates, though flagship phones are now routinely at 120Hz or higher. Phone cameras can also record in 1080p HD at 60Hz or higher. LiveDrop works if the two devices have different refresh rates, so a flagship can share with a mid-range, affordable, or older phone without issues, though transfer speeds might take a little longer in those cases.

It doesn’t have to be images, either, since any file will do. If you have a PDF or document to share, LiveDrop does that easily. You also don’t have to turn on Airplane mode to get it to work, though the file transfer doesn’t benefit from the Internet connection anyway because there’s no triangulation involved. No need to go to the cloud, nor logging into a local access point. QR codes have been common for years except they mostly lead to URLs, links, documents, or information, not so much as a delivery system for images.

Possible Applications Going Forward

One of the biggest potential use cases for offline file transfer like this would arguably be getting photos off a camera and straight to a phone, tablet, or laptop. Photography workflows always vary, but transferring photos or video — especially untethered in the field — usually requires inserting the memory card into a computer at some point.

RAW files give you even less recourse when camera manufacturers don’t support transferring them wirelessly through their own dedicated apps. With LiveDrop’s SDK, it would theoretically be possible for camera brands to implement an offline file transfer system into the camera’s screen itself.

LiveDrop Demo

It’s a tantalizing proposition. The very idea of displaying a moving QR code on a camera’s LCD screen for a phone or laptop to snatch without going through a myriad of menu options would be undeniably convenient. Not to mention doing it entirely offline without any need for either device to be on Wi-Fi or reaching for a cable to physically connect the two.

Photo booths or similar services would probably also save a lot of time this way by letting people simply choose the photo they want, read the code, and transfer it over quickly. Same for travel where local photographers can share the images they take without any network connectivity necessary for paying tourists. That would beat a more convoluted process of dedicated links and downloads that are generally the norm for those setups.

Offline file transfer without any wireless connectivity is also more secure and anonymous because it wouldn’t be possible for a third-party to hack the transfer. Moreu says LiveDrop is already part of a healthcare pilot project at a hospital in the Netherlands and Vivent Health in the U.S. One of the ideas is to allow doctors to share information with patients in a quicker and more efficient way without requiring any network connections. It’s also why there’s a separate app in the iOS App Store called LiveDrop Flow.

LiveDrop Demo

Another test pilot at a Dutch university enabled a professor to share files and handouts with students who just scanned the codes with their phones. Yet another was to put a code in the corner of a TV screen during a broadcast to share related information that way.

Moving on Up

LiveDrop isn’t the only company offering offline phone-to-phone transfer. Feem comes to mind as an alternative, though it doesn’t work with scrambled codes and requires the two devices to connect to each other via Wi-Fi Direct. XDrop and PairDrop follow similar paths to make transfers work between devices cross-platform, including Windows and macOS alongside iOS and Android. While Wi-Fi Direct allows them to send larger files, the steps make the process take longer than LiveDrop does, so there are pros and cons either way.

It would be nice to see LiveDrop’s offline process work with cameras to flexibly transfer images, potentially enabling an easier workflow, especially when quick turnarounds or social media posts are necessary. Event, sports, and any other live function come to mind. For now, the LiveDrop app is free to download and use on iOS and Android.

Image credits: Ted Kritsonis for PetaPixel