Hot new startup disrupts webcam
Before Covid-19 moved office work to our bedrooms, living rooms, or an Airbnb in Costa Rica, there was a code for looking professional. It was mainly about dressing smart and having a firm handshake. But, now that we only see our colleagues as squares on a screen, what does professionalism look like? In the age of Zoom, maybe professional looks are less about khakis and more about cameras.
However, most webcams are obsolete hardware which provides poor quality picture. We live in a world where every digital image of ourselves has been altered before we present it to the world. When we post vacation photos on Instagram to our friends, they are perfect. But when we log into Zoom for our professional life, we’re usually stuck with shoddy webcams, unless we want to spend thousands of dollars on a professional studio setup with a DSLR camera and podcast microphone. .
A new Opal hardware startup has just launched the Opal C1 to solve this problem. They aim to bring a studio-level camera and microphone to market at a fraction of the cost. The Opal C1 includes the following features:
- 4K video, a collection of microphones that filter out background noise and improve clarity,
- depth-of-field bokeh effect, which makes your video look like it was shot on a high-quality DSLR,
- machine learning to zoom in on your face and follow you in the frame, and
- manual controls to fine tune your camera like a DSLR.
It’s all wrapped up in a sleek piece of hardware reminiscent of Dieter Rams, the iconic product designer of the 1960s. In keeping with Rams’ Ninth Principle, the C1 is durable. It is designed to have a long lifespan and to be recycled at the end of its life. The packaging is 100% recyclable, without any of the polyurethanes typically used in boxes. And the camera is made of less than 1% plastic, with most of the camera being fully recyclable.
However, the magic works inside. What sets the Opal C1 apart from most webcams is that instead of just being a device, it actually has computing power onboard the camera itself. Much of the imaging gains that have been recognized on the iPhone over the past few years have been driven by the ability to process images in real time on your device to optimize a given photo. Thanks to the Intel MyriadX chip, Opal uses similar machine learning and computer vision processing on the camera to optimize video quality. Intel’s new 14-nanometer VPU chip makes everything from editing to autofocus silky smooth and enables new things like depth-based bokeh.
After a few days of using the Opal C1, I am impressed. Compared to my $ 200 high-end Logitech Brio 4K that I used before. Setting up the Opal is much easier. The software was easy to download, install and use, while the Logitech software still baffles me after over a year. The installation on the Opal was really plug and play, not so much with the Logitech Brio. The image quality and control granularity of the Opal is far superior to that of the Logitech Brio. The Opal is more expensive at $ 300, but I’d say the overall quality is at least 100% better, and the experience will only get better.
Overall, the Opal C1 is probably 90% as good as a $ 5,000 DSLR studio setup for less than 1/10.e price with much more user-friendly setup and operation.
So what’s the story behind the camera?
Opal was founded by Veeraj Chugh, product manager at Uber and Jump, Stefan Sohlstrom, designer and product manager who worked at Plaid, Otto and Uber Freight, and Kenny Sweet Industrial designer who designed products for Beats and Google. The team came together during the pandemic. In March 2020, as the world tackled the lockdown and everyone suddenly went from in-person meetings to endless Zoom calls, Chugh said, “We collectively realized that, like, wow, my webcam sucks. Why am I walking around with a DSLR in my pocket, but the thing I actually use seven hours a day doesn’t look so good? This opportunity is huge and no one is doing anything about it. “
So the team started tinkering with nights and weekends. As they delved deeper into camera technology, they realized that most webcams were based on outdated hardware and none had the computing power on board to achieve studio-quality video. Sohlstrom recalls: “What we have learned is that modern quality cameras are 25-40% hardware. The rest is like computer photography, computer vision, machine learning, which greatly improves the image. They believed that with the combined talent of their team, they had a chance to master both the hardware and the software needed to build a revolutionary camera. They started building the hardware in January 2021 and the software in March 2021.
They’ve raised a series of seeds from Kindred Ventures, Seven Seven Six Ventures, Offline Ventures and others that have changed the camera world forever: Instagram co-founder Mike Krieger, YouTube co-founder Chad Hurley, Twitch co-founder Kevin Lin, co-founder of Xiaomi Hong Feng and Hugo Barra – the ancestor of the Metaverse vision on Facebook. They also have great angels who have helped them throughout the process, Emilie Choi, President of Coinbase; Jeremy Cai CEO of Italic, Sahil Lavingia Co-Founder of Gumroad, Liam Casey Founder and CEO of PCH International, Manik Gupta SVP of Teams and Skype at Microsoft, Matt Mullenweg Co-Founder and CEO of WordPress and many more.
Then in September, Alexis Ohanian, one of their investors, tweeted about the camera, which sparked a deluge of interest. The story sprinted to the top of Hacker News, which ended up crashing its website three times. Once the dust settled, Opal C1 had a waiting list of 16,000 people. This week, they’re launching publicly, which means they allow people on the waitlist to buy on a first-come, first-served basis. The software is still in beta and will be continually updated to improve the quality of the video and audio experience.
Opal makes it easy to look and sound professional in video calls. This team is focused on building the best camera on the market today, and over the next few months, they will continuously push the product to bring more enjoyment to users. Ultimately, they give professionals a digital identity that allows them to show up to their meetings looking great so they can function with confidence.