In the age of remote work, Opal offers a glimpse into the future of webcams – TechCrunch

In September, Alexis Ohanian sent a test balloon, disguised as a tweet. “We have quietly supported a team (from Apple, Beats, Uber) to revive a forgotten corner of consumer technology,” wrote the founder of 776. “The beta has arrived today and the quality is mind blowing. . Webcams, welcome to 2021.

The message was accompanied by an open box, with some identifying details – including the name of the company – pixelated. This information, in the end, wasn’t too hard to come by, with the company and product name – Opal C1 – printed in white on the border just above the lens.

The reaction was swift. The “Shut Up and Take My Money Gifs” flowed. It was, after all, a beautiful device, backed by at least a known quantity. And more urgently still, it has reached the height of a technological sore point which has been practically universally recognized. Webcams, in a nutshell, sucks.

Image credits: Brian heating

It’s not just any kind of revelation. It’s not like they’re just starting to suck. It’s just that, until recently, it was just something we could live with. But the fiftieth time you’ve peered into a CNN correspondent’s apartment at 480p through a layer of Crisco, you begin to wonder about the nature of the world.

Of course, you don’t have to appear on cable news every night to want an upgrade. Maybe you’ve bought a Logitech – or maybe your job has gone crazy rigging a DSLR camera. Both cases expose what is ultimately a huge and under-addressed market. And while at the start of the pandemic, it may have seemed like a momentary blip, even if / when it all ends, it’s clear there won’t really be any normalcy to return to.

Even though corporate offices have dragged their feet, we seem to have turned a corner on the issue of remote working. It quickly became more the rule than the exception, leaving many to ask the same question: where is the iPhone of webcams? It sounds pretty straightforward. Take all the lessons learned from smartphone imaging and apply them to a stagnant market.

From left to right: 2020 iMac webcam, Opal C1. Image credits: Brian heating

It doesn’t seem to come from Apple. Not in the short term, at least. To the company’s credit, they’ve made some progress, first through digital image processing on its M1 chips, and then upgrading the onboard sensors. But for many, better is not enough. It is more or less the thought that pushed the founders of Opal on their path.

By the time Ohanian’s tweet arrived, Opal had been working on the C1 for seven months. It’s basically overnight in hardware startup land, but at the very least they had beautiful hardware in a beautiful package, with an air of VC mystery dusted in it. The company says it now manages a waiting list of 16,000 people.

“[The response] was overwhelming, ”said co-founder and chairman Stefan Sohlstrom. “It was really rewarding for us to see. We’re the two most optimistic people about what we’re building. We obviously had the impression that not only was the market big, it was obvious, but that the need was very deep. It wasn’t just that, of course millions of people would buy that. It was for the people who do this for their work, it is an important thing for them. This is how they communicate with the world.

Image credits: Brian heating

Opal’s journey officially began in November 2020, with a simple question.

“If we were to build a webcam today, what technologies are available to us that make an iPhone as close as possible to a DSLR? Says co-founder and CEO Veeraj Chugh. “We did a lot of research talking to people in the industry, talking to users and talking to people who previously worked at competitors. The overwhelming response, “It should be there and the technology has to be very, very different from any webcam that came before.” “

In December, the team lifted an undisclosed round, and a month later began to build a team of designers and engineers who had previously worked for companies like Apple, Google, and Magic Leap.

The result is lovingly crafted $ 300 hardware with a 7.8mm Sony 4K sensor and built-in beamforming mic mesh array. It is undoubtedly the most beautiful webcam that I have tested. I admit that – in and of itself – doesn’t say much, but I spend a lot of hours every day watching one, so it might be nice to watch too.

Image credits: Brian heating

He may also end up being the most capable. But this is where I hedge my bets and tell you that my time practicing with the product did get me into beta testing. Opal is aiming for an out-of-the-box, plug and play experience – and for a company that has only just celebrated its first anniversary, it’s on the right track.

As we get closer to some sort of general availability, I’ll feel more comfortable reviewing the product. For now, I’m happy to give the C1 a longer lead than I’m testing the products. This is an exciting new device from an exciting new business. It has issues and broken promises – more or less what you’d expect from a limited beta from a brand new company.

The device above the screen of my iMac M1 is the final hardware. The software, on the other hand, is still very much in beta. What I received is starting to roll out to some customers, starting today. By opal:

The units begin shipping to the public on December 14. Customers on the waiting list can purchase the camera with an invitation. We are deploying slowly to ensure the customer experience exceeds expectations – once we cross a positive threshold there, we will deploy quantities in the tens of thousands.

Image credits: Brian heating

4K is not yet operational. “We temporarily disabled 4K video because it is not compatible with most video conferencing applications and it was giving users a hard time,” the company notes. “We are relaunching shortly with a stronger warning, and will be available for applications that support, for recording videos and the like.”

Upon opening the beta control software on my desktop, the Audio tab is grayed out. By using the array of mics on the front and the surround mics on the back, the company has big plans for the future:

We’re focused on building the major markets for noise cancellation and using the same learnings to create something we call Studio Sound. Studio sound lets you sound like you’re on a professional podcast, without the $ 500 boom mic. By using MicMesh inputs routed through a neural network, we will be able to render your sound professional quality.

The sound, as it is, is good. And by “good” I mean business meetings, not going on CNN or recording my podcast. If you do any of these things, you’ll want to stick with this dedicated mic. In the future, who knows? “Studio Sound” could be standard or maybe something that professionals can unlock as part of a monthly service pack. There are still many unanswered questions during these heady beta days.

Another question the business must answer is how much control to give the user upfront. I realize this seems like a no-brainer, but in the world of imagery, too much control can quickly put average users above their heads. The ideal compromise for the majority of users is good out-of-the-box quality, with additional manual adjustments if you dig. Automatic white balance and skin tones are two upcoming challenges for the business.

Image credits: Brian heating

But overall I’m happy with the image I got out of the box. I made a few adjustments here and there. Having ring light and natural window lighting helps, although I always find myself playing around with the settings to get things where I want them.

The camera uses an artificial bokeh effect, similar to the portrait mode you find on most modern smartphones (although the company claims to have developed its own in-house). However, I only have the cursor about an eighth of the way up at the moment. When it’s too intense it tends to blur my ears and the sides of my face, due to the fact that there are no depth cameras on board. Opal says it has experimented with a stereo camera for depth, but has chosen not to use it in an attempt to release the device in a timely manner.

“I think at the end of the day when you talk to users they’re like, ‘give me anything.’ I can’t take care of these Logitechs anymore, ”says Chugh. “So for us speed was of the utmost importance because we felt we could ship something really good. We just have to be a little ruthless about prioritization. “

For the C1, this also means no optical zoom. Seems like an odd complaint, perhaps, for a webcam, but it’s something I really like while using a DSLR desktop setup. Being able to crop a photo tightly without degrading image quality is huge.

Image credits: Brian heating

“For the first camera, the more mechanical components you add, the more risk you have on the supply chain side and the manufacturing side,” says Sohlstrom. “It’s basically about breaking. Canon had maybe 50 years to get the right lenses. It’s definitely something we could do in the future.

For now, the system is able to zoom 2x in 1080p without degrading the image, thanks to the 4K sensor. The company says it could theoretically do something like 20-30x, but the picture quality will suffer as a result. I used my call with the founders to, in part, give a little constructive feedback. On the one hand, I would like a direct zoom setting. For now, the closest thing is Facelock. It’s similar in functionality to something like Apple’s Center Stage and similar functionality on smart screens from companies like Facebook, Google, and Amazon.

It’s honestly way too sensitive, though, and might make you seasick a bit. Hopefully in future editions the company will allow users to adjust sensitivity or just zoom in. These are two fairly easy solutions. There are so many bigger issues. I have found with apps like Google Hangouts and Zoom and had to turn the camera off and on a few times and / or relaunch the software. The camera also gets very hot, even when it is not active. The company attributes this to both the system’s built-in processing and the downscaling of the 4K image. He is working on the above fixes.

Image credits: Brian heating

For a product that a brand new company started building less than a year ago, that sounds like relatively minor complaints. I will caution against telling people to leave their DSLR cameras, especially if video quality is important to their work. But there are so many promises here. The C1 is an extremely thoughtful product, touches like a magnetic lens cap with a microfiber cloth and a coiled USB-C cable to more complex processing.

It certainly looks like the future of webcams, although there are still ways to make it happen.

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