Occipital – Computers that See Like Humans…
Last year Vikas Reddy and co-founder Jeff Powers of Occipital, a start-up in Boulder, Co, were listed in the 30 under 30 – America’s Coolest Entrepreneurs by Inc. Magazine. Vikas and Jeff came up with an innovative price checker called RedLaser, a free scanning application for iPhone and Android that has been downloaded over 8 million times. They sold RedLaser to eBay for an undisclosed amount, and now are creating and fine-tuning 360 Panorama, an exciting new product which enables computers to see like the human eye.
This app can transform anyone into a great photographer with its ability to create real-time panorama views for iPhone 4 or 3GS. As they explain it, “Gone is the need to stitch together a series of still photographs. With 360, simply pan your phone in any direction and watch as our computer vision system builds a panorama in real-time.”
These panoramic views are created in under 20 minutes and can be viewed from iPhone or iPod, and shared via email and Twitter. They can be saved directly to the camera roll and also have high resolution interface for retina displays. The app costs $2.99 and the possibilities of this panoramic image are endless.
For Vikas, this hi-tech path was probably meant to be because when he was growing up in Detroit, Michigan, one of his earliest toys was the computer and his father, who is from Andhra Pradesh in India, is a computer programmer. Says Vikas: “From an early age I did know it would be something in computer science. We always had a computer around the house and we had one of the earliest forms of Internet, so I started programming pretty early and was doing basic visuals like Tic Tac Toe.”
Vikas, who is 27, has a degree in computer science engineering from the University of Michigan. It was there that he met Jeff Powers, both being in the engineering honor society, Tau Beta Pi and of course went on to become co-founders of Occipital. Jokes Vikas, “I think the first business transaction we had was on campus when I traded him a chicken wing for some M and Ms! So that was our first business deal.”
After college, Jeff, who was part of the PhD program, went on to work in the concept of computer vision while Vikas went on to work in a NYC based start-up Xanga.com. The two met up on a bike trip and ended up forming Occipital. Recalls Vikas, “There were ups and downs – it wasn’t a straight path.
From RedLaser to Occipital & 360 Panorama
They were accepted into TechStars, a technology incubator and mentoring program based in Boulder, Co., but were not able to get any funding Start-ups are often a tough game, and they were unable to raise funds from angel or venture capitalists. Recalls Vikas: “We couldn’t actually raise any money so we had to bootstrap and try to run on practically no money, just paying for our rent and food.”
They worked on their product, RedLaser, an app for the mobile phone which permits you to scan barcodes through the mobile’s camera. Says Vikas: “It’s an instant price checker and personal shopper right in the palm of our hand.”
In the long run the fact that they did not receive any funding turned out to be a blessing in disguise because when eBay came calling, they were holding 100 percent of the equity and were able to make some serious money, to inject into their next mobile app, 360 Panorama, which transforms a series of photos from a mobile phone into a panoramic image.
While RedLaser had been a very popular product in the app store with sales doubling, the partners sold it to eBay in order to be able to pursue their dream of computer vision. They have ploughed their eBay gains into Occipital and now it is a very well-funded startup and freed up Vikas and Jeff to explore the promising world of computer vision.
“It’s almost like thinking what computers could do if they could actually see and map their surroundings in real time and create a digital replica of the real world,” explains Vikas. “ It’s about getting them to actually see the world as humans do and actually understand the scene they are looking at, working through the camera of the mobile phone. Our main focus is research, seeing what’s possible and bringing it to the mobile phone and pushing the boundaries of what’s possible.”
Vikas Reddy: Life in the Startup Lane…
So what’s a typical day like in Boulder, Co? The city has a thriving tech start up community in the beautiful foothills of the Rockies and Occipital has graduated from basement workplaces with no windows to a brand new office with a staff of five and looking to bring in more smart people.
Says Vikas: “We have an awesome team. Despite being small, we are kicking ass and having fun! We used to work ridiculous hours but now we come in at reasonable hours and leave early. The routine is there’s no routine – everyday something new comes up. When you’re the co-founder of a startup, there’s no comfort zone.”
When the big bucks came in from eBay, did Vikas buy something big and brash, a flashy sports car perhaps? He laughs, “No – I bought a coffee table – I hadn’t had one for a long time. So one of the first things I bought was that. I didn’t buy a spiffy car – I just bought a car after a while. It’s surprising how little you can live on, if you have to.”
What about social life – does it happen – or is he married to his computer? He says, “When you’re younger, you can get by on pretty little sleep if you drink a lot of coffee. We are past the initial stage of long hours. We take Sundays off – I have a more balanced social life, I have a girl-friend and a lot of good friends. I’m still not a big skier though, considering Boulder is a big ski-town.”
(c) Lavina Melwani
(This article is part of a series which first appeared on Hi Blitz)