Google Maps is a technological marvel, an interactive map of the entire world easily accessible and usable by anyone.
Street View is an even more impressive technological undertaking, offering a panoramic view of any locale the Google vans have reached. The Street View vehicles capture images via a 15-camera system mounted at about eight feet above the ground. Once all of the images are taken, the panorama is then stitched together, creating an interactive image of the world. You’ll find the same processes in developing imagery for virtual reality headsets.
Stitching technology fills in the tiny gaps between the field views of each camera, binding the image together into a cohesive mass. While this tech can create passable images, there will always be natural gaps in the images between where each lens ends, so the stitched image can never be perfect. This is called parallax, a phenomena where an object seems to change location based on position of a camera lens or viewfinder.
Enter Circle Optics, the creator of what is dubbed the first parallax-free 360-degree camera and a competitor in the second round of the Luminate NY accelerator. It’s a funny looking thing, a ball of hexagonal bug-eyed lenses that effectively make a seamless image devoid of the need for stitching.
“Nowadays creating one minute of three-dimensional footage will cost you about $3,000 to stitch, so it’s not scalable to map the world for virtual reality using a traditional camera,” said Zak Niazi, founder of Circle Optics. “So I really got started on this company to build a camera that could scalably map the world virtually.”
Parallax may seem like a complex concept, but it’s actually pretty simple. Niazi explained the phenomenon: Place your finger in front of your eyes and close one eye, then switch eyes. The finger will appear to move position due to the position of the eye viewing it changing. That’s parallax.
Circle Optics was born out of Niazi’s time studying optical engineering at the University of Rochester and works by eliminating the need for stitching. Each camera lens in the cluster ends where the next lens starts, innately producing a seamless 360 image.
“The way we work is we figured out an optical solution where you don’t have overlapping fields of view. The lenses actually physically touch one another,” Niazi said. “It’s kind of like looking at a big crystal ball… and the fields of view join seamlessly at the edges.”
Circle Optics fills a virtual reality tech gap, recording at 30 frames per second and 39.7 megapixel resolution, 360 degrees horizontally and 330 degrees vertically—the bottom mount is the only non-recording space of the camera. And while it’s more efficient and affordable than traditional methods of creating parallax-free 360-degree footage, the system itself is extremely expensive. Niazi said the key market will not be in personal sales, but rather rental to VR production studios.
“We’re not looking to enter the consumer market just yet,” for instance, distortion-free cameras for the security market, Niazi said. Circle Optics will “rent the cameras out on a day-to-day basis. Comparable cameras run for about $3,000 per day, (and) with that kind of revenue model we can make up for the cost of the camera.” He sees an eventual move to more widespread distribution.
“We’re going to initially target a batch of cameras we hope to get out by the end of this year,” Niazi said.
Coming from New York City, Circle Optics is now based in Rochester as a result of entering Luminate NY and is seeking to headquarter the entire operation in the Flower City.
“We’ve been loving it here; it’s been really amazing,” Niazi said. “We just had an event the other day where we were connected with a lot of New York photonic companies … we had the entire C-suite of these companies here listening to our pitches, and to have all of those people in one place makes it very easy to reach the decision makers in the companies. That’s something we wouldn’t have had access to before.”
Spotlight on Luminate
Ten companies composed of some of the brightest minds in the field of optics, imaging and photonics are fine-tuning their technologies inside NextCorps’ Luminate NY accelerator. The winners of November’s second Lightning Awards, these companies each received $100,000 in funding, free residency in the accelerator and access to NextCorps’ web of resources and mentoring. On June 27, the most promising of these 10 will receive a total of $2 million in follow-on funding. Originally funded for two years, the Luminate NY accelerator has now been funded for three more years via $15 million in additional state funding.
Leading up to Demo Day, the Rochester Business Journal is featuring profiles of the companies holding the keys to the next chapter in Rochester’s history as the world’s imaging center.