By Kevin J. Ryan. Source: Inc.
Jin was sold. He ripped off his Oculus virtual reality headset. “Sign me up,” he told Rowell.
Rowell, an electrical engineer with a PhD in computer vision, had captured the footage weeks earlier using a foot-tall robot rigged with a pair of cameras. After a friend introduced the two, they decided to meet up so Rowell could show Jin the technology. While the results were exciting, they knew the system wasn’t feasible for a mass-produced consumer product. “We wanted to come up with something that would impact more people,” Jin says.
Fast-forward three years, and the pair’s startup, Lucid VR, is about to release the LucidCam, a camera that captures virtual reality video. It’s about the size of a smartphone, and its two cameras allow it to capture depth so it can be viewed in three dimensions. It’s easy to use, operates with small and easily transferable files, and at $499, is accessible to casual consumers.
Jin, who was born in China and grew up in Germany, came to the U.S. to attend UC Berkeley’s industrial engineering graduate program in 2011. After graduating, he received a temporary H-1B visa and began working as a program manager at flash memory company SanDisk. He soon applied for an O-1 visa, granted to those who show exceptional talent in the sciences, art, business, or athletics, which would allow him to stay beyond the six years generally capping an H-1B.
Once Jin met with Rowell, who is now the company’s chief technology officer, he knew he wanted to help turn the technology into an affordable consumer product. “I said to myself that even if VR did not take off,” he says, “I wanted to build this camera for myself so I could capture my memories.” Especially appealing was the prospect of interacting with family and friends back home in China and Germany in a new, more realistic–but simple–way. “Sharing experiences through normal pictures is great, but it doesn’t really show them how I’m living life,” says Jin, now the company’s CEO. “We wanted to create a 3-D camera where you can see the other person and feel like you’re there with them.”
A few months after their meeting, Jin found out he’d been approved for the O-1, which meant his ability to remain in the U.S. wasn’t contingent on him staying at SanDisk. He walked into his boss’s office and told him he was quitting to work on the camera full time.
“He asked me, ‘Have you thought this through yet?’ ” Jin says. “And I was like, ‘No. But I have to go for it.’ ”
A camera for the masses.
Typically, virtual reality offers full 360-degree views, but Lucid’s is limited to 180 degrees, which helps keep things simple. It doesn’t require taking multiple videos of the same location using a tripod then stitching them together, the way 360-degree cameras generally do. Instead, it’s just point and shoot. The smaller file size also means videos can be easily sent from one user to another.
Viewing in 180 degrees and three dimensions has another advantage, Jin says. Since this is the way humans naturally see the world around them, it helps make the experience more lifelike. Making it even more realistic is the depth offered by the LucidCam’s two lenses: While virtual reality experiences have traditionally offered flat, 2-D images, Lucid VR’s is in three dimensions. Jin refers to this as the “second wave” of VR.
In December 2015, the co-founders ran a crowdfunding campaign for the LucidCam on Indiegogo, which raised $115,000. To create a promotional reel, Jin went skydiving and jumped out of a moving train with the camera strapped to his chest. “What we really wanted to show,” Jin says, “is that we’re creating a way to live life through someone else’s eyes.”
The LucidCam supports live streaming over Wi-Fi, which lets a viewer see what the camera is seeing in real time–and in 180 degrees and 3-D. Watching the footage requires either a simple headset like the Google Cardboard, or Lucid’s own camera case, which flips open to turn into a pair of glasses. It’s so simple that Jin has already been exchanging video messages with his less technologically inclined family members back in China and Germany.
The LucidCam will ship to customers in June. It won’t be the only such camera on the market: Another VR company, Vuze, launched a slightly higher-end $799 360-degree 3-D camera in March. Both companies are betting that soon the process of creating VR experiences will be normal for the average consumer, though right now they’re entering a market in which cameras can cost tens of thousands of dollars.
“It’s a big opportunity if they can make content creation for VR cheaper and faster,” Anand Sanwal, CB Insights founder and a judge on this year’s 30 Under 30 panel, says of Lucid VR. “I don’t know if the technology works as advertised, but the promise of it is big if they’re successful.”
With a recent round from investors including Wise Capital and Oriza Ventures, Lucid VR has now raised $2.6 million in seed funding. The company is looking to raise a $6 million to $8 million Series A round sometime this year.
Jin, meanwhile, is confident the LucidCam will be the tool that brings VR to the masses. “I just can’t wait,” he says, “to see how virtual reality will impact people’s lives.”