College Professors Build ‘Disruptive’ Imaging Technology; Interview with Arqball Founder Jason Lawrence

May 16, 2012

8:46 am

It’s not uncommon for great product ideas to come from the university.  The following story falls under this category. What makes this story interesting, however, is that the innovators aren’t the ones sitting in the lecture hall’s seats – they’re standing behind the podium.

Arqball‘s co-founders, Jason Lawrence and Abhi Shelat, are both professors at the University of Virginia.

Their first product, Arqball Spin, integrates their native mobile app (free on iTunes) with a smartphone’s “computational photography” to create a 360-degree, interactive image view.

How it works:

  1. Place the desired item on a uniformly rotating stage that makes one complete revolution in 20.02 seconds.  (Note: The Arqball team has started a Kickstarter campaign – expiring this Friday – to develop a proprietary stage to make this step easier for the end user.)
  2. Record the image for one full rotation
  3. Wait for the file to compress (20-30 seconds) and adjust the spin elements (crop, brightness, color, etc.)

That’s it.  Users can then share their spin through their social networks or email.

As for now, the duo envisions Arqball Spin being used primarily for e-commerce; selling products on eBay, Etsy, and the like.  Although there already exists other systems that offer similar capabilities, by making use of a user’s smartphone, Arqball makes this achievable at a much lower price point.

I caught up with Jason Lawrence to learn more about the crossover between being a college professor and starting up.

Tech Cocktail: What are the biggest similarities between creating a curriculum and innovating, fundraising, and selling a product?

Jason Lawrence: I’m not sure there are very many, however there are some similarities between creating a product and doing academic research, although even those two activities involve different creative processes. With academic research, one normally understands the problem that they are trying to address, and it’s a matter of overcoming certain intellectual hurdles.

In the case of building and selling a product, identifying the right problem to address is a major challenge. For example, there are many teams that have the technical reach to create something like Instagram, but credit to those who saw the audience ready to embrace a fantastic tool like that.

Something that academic research and business have in common is the importance of execution. In both cases, you must move very quickly and effectively to outpace your competitors and meet customer demand.

Tech Cocktail: What’s the biggest advantage your experience as a professor has granted you in the process of creating Arqball? Disadvantage?

Lawrence: One advantage is that being a professor has given me practice approaching problems in a rational and methodical way. I’m finding that this approach applies to business problems as well as technical ones.  The scientific method is indeed a very powerful tool!

One disadvantage may be that my address book contains fewer business people and investors than it would if I had taken a different route, although that is changing.

Arqball co-founder Jason Lawrence

Tech Cocktail: What do you see for the future of smartphone cameras?

Lawrence: Indeed, the future of computational photography is very exciting. The tight integration of camera, computer, and network opens up a surprising array of applications, well beyond the increasing number of photo and video sharing apps.

I predict a future with richer and more interactive visual media produced by a larger and more diverse group of people. Things like the “spins” that our technology allows someone to create with their phone previously required expensive and cumbersome equipment. I think we will continue to see that pattern of disruption.

I also think we’ll see the sensors on phones continue to evolve and diversify. I think the Lytro light field camera and the Kinect motion sensor are two good examples of where things are heading.

Tech Cocktail: What surprises/learning lessons have you gathered in the process of attempting to get funded?

Lawrence: Oh, we learn new things every day. I would say one thing that stands out is learning how to identify and reach the market for technology that is viewed as disruptive. It’s a challenge, but a fun one.  The biggest reward is witnessing people’s reaction to a new technology that you helped create that will improve their business or help them communicate in a different and fun way with their friends. That is the real thrill!

Check out the Arqball Kickstarter page to preorder your Spin today.  Want to learn more?  The video below demonstrates the Arqball Spin in action. 

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When Zach Davis isn’t getting lost in the mountains, he is hustling from Boulder, CO as Tech Cocktail’s Director of Marketing. He is the author of Appalachian Trials, a book chronicling the mindset necessary for thru-hiking all 2,181 miles of the Appalachian Trail, a feat he accomplished in 2011. Zach is a green tea enthusiast, die-hard Chicago sports fan, and avid concert-goer. Follow Zach on Twitter: @zrdavis.

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