Meet Bublcam: a 360 degree camera made by Canadian startup Bubl that lets you capture spherical panoramas of what's going on around you - either as still photographs or spherical video that allows you to swipe around and explore the scene. The camera can even stream video in real-time over Wi-Fi, in case you want to broadcast every possible vista of your skiing holiday as it happens.
Or it will be able to if Bubl hits its Kickstarter funding goal. Bublcam's makers have taken to the crowdfunding site looking for $100,000 to go into production - aiming for a May 2014 shipping date. They've been working on the project for more than two years, funding the R&D work themselves - including by selling a previous business. “We're all tapped out,” says Bubl founder and CEO Sean Ramsey, explaining why it's taking to Kickstarter now.
The ability to capture still panorama photography makes Bublcam similar to a device such as Ricoh's Theta. However there are differences: Bublcam has zero blind spots in the image, thanks to its tetrahedral design which positions four 190º lenses so that they overlap and can therefore create a perfect image. Its video capture ability also sets it apart. Bublcam captures 14 mega pixel spherical photos, and videos at 1080p at 15 fps and 720p at 30fps.
And then there's the spherical playback. Neat hardware design aside, it's Bubl's software that does the real grunt work - taking a multiplex image consisting of the four separate camera views and stitching those quadrants together in real-time so that the user can share their environment spherically as events unfold.
“Calibration became quite a bottleneck,” says Ramsey, discussing the process of creating software capable of stitching a quad-multiplex image into a sphere in real-time. “It went through a lot of iterations before we got that right.”
Getting that right involved teaming up with university professors and students in Canada to hone the algorithms required to turn something flat and segmented into a dynamic sphere of content shaped more like life. (If you don't fancy a fancy sphere, Bublcam's output can also be converted into a flat equirectangular.)
“Multiplex imagery was an untested area in general. Most people weren't using it for anything other than security footage,” he adds. “There was very little use for multiplex imagery so it became something that I realised very quickly was free and open for patenting.
“When we discovered a way to do it, that's when we realised we really had something special.”
So it's the software process - of turning a multiplex image into a sphere in real-time, utilising techniques such as UV mapping - that Bubl is hoping will ultimately give it an edge, rather than just the selling of the camera hardware itself.
That said, it's starting with the basic hardware sales play on Kickstarter. The initial Bublcam is going to be priced at around $800, with the aim of pushing it down to around $700. Even so, that's pretty steep for a single-use consumer gadget. (Kickstarter early birds do get the chance to bag a Bublcam for $400.) In future, if all goes to plan, Ramsey said Bubl is hoping to produce two additional versions of the camera: a cheaper version aimed at the consumer market, and a higher quality camera (that is capable of taking higher resolution shots) for the prosumer market.
But selling camera hardware is just one quadrant of what Bubl plans. It sees the greatest potential in licensing both its hardware and software - and having that handle on both hardware and software combined is what gives it its competitive advantage vs rivals in this space, argues Ramsey.
“When Google came out with their Google Trekker… I was just like is this where the technology is really heading?… I'm still a little surprised,” he says. ”There's been a couple of other companies that have come out with portable 360 devices. And the problem they have - which has become the biggest problem for this entire market - is you have the hardware and then you have the software, and most people try to tackle one or the other.
“No one's really tried to tackle them both together as a solution. That has made a huge differentiator for us.”
Bubl is making a photo viewer and a video viewer (for desktop, desktop browser and as mobile apps) so that content captured with the Bublcam can be properly explored (although it will also be possible to export content in formats such as Jpeg and MP4 for viewing elsewhere). Bubl's Kickstarter campaign notes:
The bubl players have been developed to allow users to look up, down and all around and create their own experiences. It also provides users with imaging controls in order to adjust brightness, contrast, saturation and zoom. Currently developed for desktop, desktop browser and in beta on iOS devices. Our development schedule also includes WebGL and Android devices, which will be released in the very near future.
It's also developing an open software API and hardware SDK so that developers can tap into Bublcam's universe - envisaging applications for an AR gaming device like the Oculus Rift, or viewing bubls using the gesture-based Leap Motion controller.
Down the line, assuming Bublcam captures enough imaginations, it's aiming to license the camera technology to other electronics manufacturers - the Sonys, the LGs, the Samsungs of the world, as Ramsey puts it - and is working on an enterprise version of its software suite for licensing to various vertical markets that are focused on content creation.
“There's the opportunities to sit down with the ad agencies, and production companies, and televisions studios and broadcast networks,” he says. “We're creating software with some interesting features pulled in to it to allow those places to create a lot more dynamic version of a bubl. Interactive features like if you want to create a virtual tour where you can click from one bubl to the next, if you want to have branding information included directly into the video.
“Or if you want to create an experience where the content of the video had data visualisations - like image recognition, facial recognition. We want to be able to allow those features to built either on top of our player - through the API - and as the company grows, leverage some of those features ourselves internally so if you decide to license the software suite you will get access to feature that you're not going to get through the free application.”
Ramsey tells TechCrunch he originally came up with the idea for Bublcam some five years ago, while working at an ad agency and being asked by a client to come up with an experience where the car sat in the middle of the screen and was viewable from all angles and directions.
“In developing that idea we realised that the technology wasn't really there, and we'll have to do something ourselves,” he says. “And after we did it, I realised that if we could do this for a still image, why couldn't we do this for video?”
Exactly who or what Bublcam is going to be for is TBC at this point. It's partly why Bubl is taking to Kickstarter, rather than choosing and targeting one specific vertical itself. The concept is proven, the prototype is working but the applications still need to dreamt up. And that is probably Bublcam's biggest barrier: getting people to see the potential in spherical video.
Initially, Ramsey says he thought the security industry would be the likely adopters of Bublcam but various other applications have since suggested themselves - from gaming to action sports to immersive videochatting to advertising/industry applications - hence the decision to “put the content and the camera out into the world to see where it sticks best”. To see what early adopters do with it. (The quick-to-adopt-new-tech adult entertainment industry may well be one such early taker for Bublcam. Time will tell.)
As it kicks off its Kickstarter campaign, Bubl is still tweaking the camera hardware to improve video capture so it can better compete with GoPro for action sports use-cases, says Ramsey - an enhancement that it has factored into its May 2014 ship date. In the meantime, it will be waiting to see what the crowdfunding community makes of Bublcam, and what the first crop of backers end up doing with it.
“We are still in a place where we don't know exactly where it's going to go to first, how it's going to be adopted quickest. We kind of wanted to put it out there and let the world dictate exactly how we want to use it. We have built a system and a product that will entertain and fit into many different verticals,” he says.
“And although our goal is to try to disrupt as many markets as possible, which one's going to be first, which one's going to provide us with the best type of results, which one's going to create the largest revenue stream - is still unfamiliar. This technology is really new, and people still don't fully comprehend where it's going to be able to go. We want to discover that along with everyone else.”