Andy Rubin-backed Owl Labs just launched a robotic video conference camera

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A startup backed by Andy Rubin’s Playground incubator and venture capital firm has rolled out a new hardware product, one that addresses the pain points of an unexciting but crucial area of business technology: video conferencing systems.

Owl Labs’ new camera, called Owl, is a thermos-shaped, robotic video camera that captures a 360-degree view of a meeting space and automatically shifts its point of focus to show whoever is talking in the meeting. This robotic shifting is supposed to replace the remote controls or awkward manual turning of cameras that happens sometimes during video conference meetings.

The Owl is a 2.6-pound, fabric-covered Wi-Fi device with two round LED indicator lights and a custom-designed fish-eye lens at its crown. All of the imagery is captured in 720p HD from the fish-eye lens. It has an eight-microphone array at the top, built-in speakers, and connects to a computer or monitor via USB. It runs on a forked version of Android, and is powered by Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 410 processor.

The hardware is admittedly cute, but you don’t really get a sense of how it works until you see the output of the camera, as I saw earlier this week during a remote demo. Using the video conferencing app Zoom, four members of the Owl Labs team sat around a conference room table in Boston. As they chatted with me, I was able to see a panoramic view of the four of them around the room, and as they took turns speaking the camera would appear to shift its focus to the next person speaking. If two people were going back and forth in conversation and were sitting across from each other, not directly next to each other, the Owl would automatically create a split view, showing both as they spoke.

Currently, a lot of video conferencing platforms, including Zoom and Google Hangouts, automatically adjust to put whoever is speaking front and center in the field of view. Owl Labs says the difference between its system and others is that others are prioritizing people from different cameras or remote locations, whereas Owl offers that function for multiple people within the same room.

The Owl camera starts selling today for $ 799, putting it at a midrange price point when compared with video conferencing cameras from manufacturers like Logitech, Vaddio, and HuddleCamHD. Owl Labs’ vice president of growth, Karen Rubin, says its target market is businesses with fewer than 1,000 employees or smaller tech companies that are keen to adopt the latest technology in their offices.

It’s clearly a hardware-centric solution to what Owl Labs sees as a persistent problem within conference rooms and workspaces. It was partly inspired by the experience of Owl Labs co-founder Mark Schnittman, who worked remotely at his last company, Romotive. Schnittman says 75 percent of his working life was “not only working remotely but working remotely with hardware,” he said. “When I saw my colleagues rotate the camera as opposed to robotics doing it, I knew I could make it happen robotically.”

“I’ve heard stories of people bringing a Lazy Susan to work to get their cameras to rotate,” said Max Makeev, another co-founder who serves as chief executive officer of Owl Labs. “And, there are lots of remote-controlled cameras for meeting rooms, but we found that people have the desire to steer the camera but not the will do it.”

Owl Labs is based in Boston, where Makeev and Schnittman joined forces after leaving iRobot and Romotive, respectively. But the team spent a year and a half in Silicon Valley after being backed by Playground Global, the Andy Rubin-founded company in Palo Alto, California.

Playground is both a venture capital firm and an accelerator for startups. It invests in fledgling companies, but also helps them prototype products and leverages relationships with suppliers like Foxconn and Seagate to get the products made. It’s the same company that is making the Essential Phone, which was revealed at Recode’s Code Conference. (The Verge had an exclusive hands-on with it last month.)

Initially, Makeev and Schnittman didn’t want to move to Silicon Valley, and almost passed on the investment opportunity. Eventually they agreed to incubate the company within Playground, and have since raised $ 6 million in a funding round led by Matrix Partners, in addition to the $ 1.3 million in seed funding from Rubin and his team.

“It’s essentially a robotic cameraman who’s going to cut together the meeting of who’s talking,” said Bruce Leak, a tech veteran who co-founded Playground Global with Rubin. “It’s using advanced technology and machine learning to get that done. If you have a cameraman just focusing on the important stuff, and cutting out the person that was crinkling their potato chip wrapper … [it’s] a much better experience for remote attendees.”

Both Leak and Rubin say they see a market opportunity in Owl because of the growing number of remote workers in the US. According to a Gallup poll released in February of this year, 43 percent of American workers said they spent some of their time working remotely in 2016, up 4 percent from 2012. And in some cases, having adequate remote capabilities is also critical to luring talent who may not want to move to an expensive city for a new job.

“People used to talk about remote workers and telepresence, and it used to be a thing, back when IBM made its big decision that 20 percent of its workers would be remote,” Rubin said. “The world has since evolved so that every device around you is capable of enabling you as a remote worker — except for these business meetings. So as the world continues to distribute, this is going to become more and more important.”

Rubin estimates that the potential market for this kind of camera is in the “hundreds of millions of dollars,” for a single product line aimed at enterprise customers.

Right now the Owl is being positioned as a software-agnostic piece of hardware, something that will work with Skype or Hangouts or Zoom or Slack video, or any other platform that currently exists. But Owl Labs seems to have its own software ambitions as well. The Owl already works with a mobile app that enables remote control of the camera. The company also plans to develop smart meeting analytics software, and, eventually, use the Owl camera as a sensor that can let employees know if meeting rooms are available, based on activity levels of the Owl.

“We’ll push software updates to deliver that value,” Schnittman said, but plans to wait to see what the demand is first. “Maybe people really want an Alexa in their meeting room. Maybe we’ll tap into APIs. But we really want that user feedback.”

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