Lucid bets on 180 degrees for virtual reality

Creating video content for virtual reality is a bit awkward. When a camera shoots in 360 degrees, that means the director, and anyone else who shouldn’t be in the shot, has to be out of sight. And then there is the problem of getting the viewer to look at the right place at the right time.

Lucid, a Fremont, Calif.-based startup that hopes to release its first product at the end of the year, believes the solution is to drop 360 degrees entirely. Co-founder and CEO Han Jin calls its LucidCam camera the GoPro of virtual reality because it’s built to be inexpensive, uncomplicated and easy to take anywhere.

LucidCam looks a bit like a flattened, elongated hockey puck. It sports twin cameras that allow it to shoot 3D video and stills. When I popped on an Oculus headset to watch a video shot on a very early prototype, I was greeted by a woman and a baby. The baby played with a xylophone before noticing “my” presence and crawling toward me with a smile.

It was an intimate moment that actually belonged to Jin’s co-founder Adam Rowell. The film wasn’t shot in hyper-realistic HD like those made by some of Lucid’s founders, but the slightly cloudy effect made it feel like a vintage home movie. It actually contributed to the emotional pull of the scene and didn’t detract from the feeling of presence. (Of course, Jin and his team are still working toward offering HD video.)

Lucid CEO Han Jin with a LucidCam design prototype.

Lucid CEO Han Jin with a LucidCam design prototype.

Jin, who was previously working at a Y Combinator-backed startup, said he was inspired to work with Rowell on Lucid because of his own family. He was born in China, but grew up in Germany and eventually moved to California to attend school at University of California, Berkeley. He described sending videos shot with LucidCam to his grandmother, who he has not seen in several years. He previously found it difficult to re-create a scene for someone so far away.

“You are re-experiencing something through the eyes of someone else,” Jin said. “It’s like time traveling.”

That idea of recapturing someone’s sight is built right into the design of LucidCam. Most cameras made for virtual reality capture a full 360 degrees, allowing you to look up, forward and backward when you view the output in a VR headset. But LucidCam only captures 180 degrees. That means that you can sit looking forward and turn your head slightly left or right before you glimpse the black edge of the field of view.

“No one does this,” Jin said, turning his entire body to look over the back of his chair.

It’s somewhat true. Not every virtual reality experience actually needs 360 degrees. People in the industry take it as a given because it’s one of the huge firsts — and strengths — of virtual reality. But it’s natural for viewers to want to take a seat and more passively turn their head every once in a while. The 3D video, and sense of presence, still makes for an impressive experience.

LucidCam’s build also means it’s natural for anyone to shoot with it. You don’t have to adapt to mounting the camera on your head, or setting a timer and running away, to get the right shot. Instead, you just point it forward like you would with any current camera.

“My vision for this is to have any person have one at home,” Jin said.

With exec departures and reorg, Nest is growing up

About a year ago, Google said it would pay $3.2 billion for Nest, a company that had sold fewer than a million connected thermostats and fewer than 440,000 connected smoke detectors — which it would later have to stop selling because its most innovative feature might also prove deadly in a fire. That was a lot of money for a company that had a lot of potential, but was still facing a lawsuit from a giant in the thermostat world, and was trying to sell a pricey product that the mainstream market wasn’t quite sure it understood.

Now, as it reorganizes in the wake of what looks to be the surprise departure of two executives, the company is doing what it has to do to prove that $3.2 billion price tag. Google didn’t buy Nest for its beautiful thermostat — it bought into Tony Fadell’s vision of a connected home full of better products that would learn from users and improve their lives. Along the way, if it helped Google get into hardware and collect vast amounts of data that might one day help solve energy crises or improve computer vision, that’s all to the good.

Greg Duffy DropCam Mobilize 2013

Greg Duffy, CEO, DropCam Mobilize 2013 (c) 2013 Pinar Ozger [email protected]

But to do that, Nest has to get big — moving beyond thermostats, smoke detectors and cameras. That requires a lot of discipline. So when I saw reports of a culture clash leading to the departure of Greg Duffy, the former CEO of Dropcam on Friday evening, it didn’t surprise me. The report alleged a “culture of meetings,” and Duffy appeared to confirm his departure via a tweet. Duffy wasn’t the only one who left: Nest’s VP of Technology Yoky Matsuoka also left, reportedly heading for a role at Twitter.

This did surprise me, as a Nest employee and official spokeswoman offered to have Matsuoka come to my house to fix my Nest as part of a joke, on a call with me on Thursday. I doubt they would have offered that in jest if her departure was common knowledge at that time. In an article about memos acquired by Tech Crunch after the loss of the two executives, several issues stand out, but all of them point to a company trying to scale up to become a multi-billion-dollar business relatively quickly.

The first thing that jumps out is the crazy work schedule — employees were being asked to work Saturdays until April or May, tied to an ambitious product release schedule for Project Quartz and Black Quartz, which TechCrunch says are two camera updates. Nest’s competition in the smart home space is offering not just cameras, but security systems with embedded sensors and learning systems that can learn who is in your home and react accordingly. I don’t know what Project Quartz and Black Quartz are at this time, but I can look at the market and say that while easy to use, Dropcam’s products aren’t particularly noteworthy compared to other Wi-Fi cameras out there, and bigger names are getting in the game every day.

The work schedule is one thing, and something that I would imagine would prompt a lot of angst, but the second element of the memos was a reorganization dividing the hardware side of the business and the software and services side of the business. Other roles are getting reorganized as well, with what appear to be clearer reporting lines and a definitive “management” layer.

So will this help Nest build the products it needs to sell tens of millions of connected gadgets, and design dozens of devices over the years?