Trey Ratcliff takes on travel guides with gorgeous new iPad app

Trey Ratcliff is best known for his widely renowned photography work; his blog Stuck in Customs is massively popular (every day the site’s photos receive more than 150,000 views) and the HDR (high dynamic range) photo techniques he helped to popularize are now practically ubiquitous.
Ratcliff is now setting his sights on disrupting a closely related but very separate space: Travel guides. And he’s just unveiled a gorgeous new iPad(s AAPL) app called Stuck on Earth to do it.

Screenshot of Stuck on Earth (click to enlarge)

An app born out of necessity

“I spend my life traveling and finding places and taking photos, and I have cobbled together five or six different tools from the web and apps to research my trips, but I’ve still never found the best way to find places to go when building an itinerary,” the Austin, Texas-based Ratcliff told me in a phone interview Tuesday evening. “I built this app for myself. I’m an edge case, because I travel and take photos all the time, but I also developed it for the bulk of the bell curve.”
I’ve been playing with Stuck on Earth for several hours, and it really is gorgeous and very fun to use.  It overlays photos sourced from the Stuck in Customs blog and Flickr (s yhoo) group, and overlays them on a map of the world that you can zoom in on, giving you a high quality, visual way to get a glimpse of the places you might want to visit. The app lets you save favorite photos in lists you create such as “Places I’ve Seen” or “Trip to Spain in December.” It also includes curated lists such as “Top 50 Beaches on Earth” written by editors Ratcliff has sourced through his Stuck in Customs contacts.

Stuck on Earth Screenshot (click to enlarge)

Seeing the world from your iPad

On the surface, it reminds me a bit of Panoramio, the Spain-based, geolocation, photo-sharing site acquired by Google back in 2007. (s goog) But Stuck on Earth goes way past that in lots of ways, though its design, the quality of the photos, and the cool features surrounding the map and geo-tagging elements. Stuck on Earth has a very Indiana-Jones-mixed-with-Carmen-Sandiego feel: It talks to you in a Siri-like (s aapl) voice, and the design hearkens to old explorer and adventurer themes. Basically, it’s inspiring: The app makes you excited about seeing the world and discovering new things.
What’s especially impressive is that Ratcliff has made this app with a very tiny team: He did the design (his background is in computer science and mathematics), an Austin-based “rock star programmer” did the coding, and a graphic designer did contract work remotely from Serbia. “We don’t have to do design by committee, so it was basically just the three of us that cranked the thing out.”

Growth, and maybe funding, ahead

And since Ratcliff’s website is quite profitable, he was able to make the app without worrying about incorporating ways to make money from it right now. But going forward, he may be interested in taking on outside funding to really seize the opportunity to properly disrupt the travel space. “Our next step is to make a bigger team. There are a ton of features we want to add, and we’d like to bring the app to Android,” Ratcliff said. “We’re not actively looking for money and we’re doing just fine financially, but we wouldn’t mind talking to a few financial partners. This thing could have a big life of its own.” Here’s hoping that it does.
Here’s a video of Stuck on Earth at work: