Every good photographer knows the limits of their equipment. The depth of field your lens can take on, the focal range, the dynamic range and the endless array of other factors that can affect just how well a picture turns out. But then there’s the atmosphere itself, the haze that can limit the clarity of an image taken from a distance, be it aerial photography, maritime photography or just catching the perfect shot of an eagle from a safe, inconspicuous distance.
Turbulence can be a nuisance for imaging in those situations and a litany of others, but Luminate NY startup Tarsier Optics has a solution: The Quantum Camera. The Quantum Camera works by using two sensors simultaneously, each taking in images and using an algorithm to sort into a coherent image. It’s not filling in gaps or recreating what might be there, but rather actually retrieving data to create the image as it is when conventional imaging would fall short.
“When you’re looking through a large chunk of atmosphere, the main impediment to what you can see isn’t the optics, it’s not the lens and it’s not the detector, it’s heat haze turbulence. People in Rochester are familiar with this, because when you look over a heater in the winter, it looks blurry,” said Ian Tolfree. He’s Tarsier’s former CEO now functioning in a research role. “So when you look over bigger and bigger chunks of atmosphere, it just obscures what you can see, and there hasn’t been to date a good way to (overcome) that.”
Tarsier was born at the Maryland Innovation Initiative, a collaboration between the state of Maryland and five academic centers, including Johns Hopkins University, where Tolfree previously ran its tech incubator. It was there he met Ken Malone of Early Charms Ventures LLC, a venture firm specializing in co-founding and managing promising tech companies.
Inspired by the new camera, Tolfree and Malone wrote a business plan, figuring it could be revolutionary and change imaging, Tolfree said. The business was incorporated in November 2015 and by September of the following year, the team began full-time work.
The company includes Jane Sprigg, who developed the Quantum Camera for her Ph.D. thesis at the University of Maryland and now works as a researcher at Tarsier. Quiet and reserved, Sprigg gave a brief rundown of one of her new experiments inside Tarsier’s lab on the fourth floor of the Sibley Building. The camera, stripped of its housing, is placed ahead of a lens covered by a piece of paper with a small slit. Behind that paper sits an image of several triplets of parallel lines, each set closer together than the last.
“What you can see is that those lines tend to get blurry—the image is harder to make out,” Sprigg said. “But with our algorithm, we’re able to make that image clearer.”
Sprigg’s current experiment is not using two sensors, but rather a singular sensor using an algorithm that can break through the haze, effectively clearing up the image. Sprigg described it as picking up on surfaces, making the image clearer and more easily discernible. Although not part of the intended result, images taken with the camera tend to have enormous depth of field.
As far as companies go, Tarsier is in its infancy. The prototype looks very much like a prototype, fit more for a lab setting than use in the field. However, as far as applications go, the team is confident about the possibilities, from drone surveillance to oil exploration to wildlife photography.
“It’s an algorithm that improves all the quality you get out of an HDR (high dynamic range) image,” Tolfree said. “You get improved contrast between the light and dark elements of a scene,” in addition to sharply focused depth of field.
Tolfree was approached by Andy Simon, client engagement manager at Luminate NY, about joining the Rochester incubator. Now in Rochester, Malone says they were remiss to not consider the Flower City as a hub for operations, given the city’s history with optics.
“We have no reason to leave Rochester; it’s a phenomenal place to build an optics company,” Malone said. “One of the big reasons we have (interim CEO Joe Koval) there is to help us grow a team up there and make sure we do things in all the right ways.”
Koval points to the many advantages of Luminate NY: the access to resources, the business-oriented seminars and the tools at their disposal to make their company as successful as possible.
“It’s a place where you can pick up the phone and call someone like (Luminate NY advisory board chairman) Don Golini, and he’ll return your phone call,” Koval said. “There’s a good group of people to network with and tap into.”