Sometimes a camera is not just a camera! – On my Om

Over a year ago, Opal Camera CEO Veeraj Chugh and his co-founder, Stefan Sohlstrom, convinced me to replace my trusted Logitech Streamcam with their new sleek device, Opal C1. The Opal C1 is a beautifully designed (temporarily disabled) 4k webcam that was better than what others had to offer. Opal also sells another cute and well-designed webcam called Tadpole, primarily for Windows Laptop users. 

Every startup thinks their baby is the most beautiful. Still, I am not the one to not try something new. What sold me was their persuasive argument. Not only will the image quality be great, they will continue to improve the hardware with new software upgrades. 

Chugh and Sohlstrom said that with computer vision (and other aspects of AI) making progress by the week, we can’t think of the camera as static hardware. It can not just be upgraded, but also, the hardware can be given more capabilities over a period of time. 

The ability to upgrade hardware via firmware is well understood, but very few camera (and device makers) think of continuously enhancing their products with software. In other words, the camera is no different from a computer for them. Just like smartphone companies — who use their smart phone’s innards to make the camera better. 

Opal has since released a product called Composer, which allows you to enhance your Opal Camera. It takes advantage of onboard chips to do so. By installing the software, you can increase (or decrease) the depth of field effect (Bokeh) by controlling the virtual aperture. If you own an iPhone, this is the webcam equivalent of Portrait mode. In a media release, Opal explained:

The neural nets we are running become steps in a longer pipeline used within features on the device. For example Bokeh – for our Bokeh effect, we start with a neural network guessing the segmentation between the foreground and background, which kicks off a proprietary set of filters that tune the segment, and a graphic rendering pipeline that actually models the physics of how light enters a lens through a hexagonal lens – all to make a Bokeh effect that is far more convincing than anything else out there. Each of these steps, we’re doing 30 times a second.

You can Zoom in on your face and have the camera follow you around. There are several other enhancements, for example, pinch to zoom. The multiple mics filter out the noise. And you can create a “look” for yourself. Opal is not the only game in town — China-based Insta360 makes Link, a 4K webcam, that too is “AI” enhanced and offers gesture control, AI tracking, and many such features. These are table stakes in the business now. No wonder I find Logitech dowdy, in comparison. 

In the past, you needed mirrorless cameras to get similar functionality, and even then they are not very advanced. In comparison, Composer is a collection of algorithms and software that has the option of giving a $200 webcam more capabilities by the day. Hardware companies such as Opal have to consider offering a paid service where software and algorithms, and not hardware, help them make a profit by enhancing the camera on an ongoing basis. That is better than a one-time “hardware” sale. 

An ongoing evolution happening in the world of cameras. While overall sales of cameras might be slumping, there are many more “cameras” out in the world. In 2016, I made my argument in The New Yorker:

We are splintering what was the “camera” and its functionality—lens, sensors, and processing—into distinct parts, but, instead of lenses and shutters, software and algorithms are becoming the driving force. And this is not just happening on smartphone cameras. You can expect the software to define and enhance what lenses, sensors, and processing units in other settings can do. Dash cams, security cams, adventure cams, driving cams—these are just early examples of devices that have specific applications, cameras that could become much more powerful in the future.

Every single time I use Opal’s Composer, I become acutely aware of how far behind the camera companies are lagging in thinking about artificial intelligence, computer vision, and software to look beyond selling hardware. It is even more confounding because most modern mirrorless cameras have processors, connectivity, storage, and power. The possibilities are endless.

Sadly, Sony and Nikons of the world make hardware — and they won’t even know how to contemplate the notion — that sometimes, a camera is not just a camera. 

April 22, 2024. San Francisco

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