The startup scene in India has been picking up since the last four to five years. Two years ago, websites and services which were only well known among the tech-savvy community have become quite mainstream. Not only are we seeing apps being advertised on large banners, but they also make their way to our homes in the form of TV commercials. Thanks in part to the smartphone boom, a lot of Indians are comfortable using the online medium to do everything from shopping, booking doctors appointments, to hailing cabs and much more.
A major part of this innovation is on the software development side of things. E-commerce is a major vertical that has given a boost to the startup culture here. Off late, we have been seeing a rise in the number of cab-booking apps, grocery-delivery apps, home services apps and more. Everyday we keep hearing about stratospheric valuations of websites, services and apps. Clearly, a lot of startups are flush with venture capital (VC) funds and apart from creating a ready job market, these startups are also changing the way we do regular things at some level.
However, while we have heard countless success stories on the software side, there is barely any name that stands out in the hardware space. Akash tablets is the only name that comes to mind – and we all know how that fared. Notion Ink is another company that showed a lot of promise and is still making tablets. With the ‘Make in India’ initiative, a lot more companies are thinking of making hardware in India. But we still do not have an equivalent of say a Pebble or a GoPro in India.
Former MIT Media Labs India initiative lead and Tesseract Imaging founder Kshitij Marwah hopes to change that status quo with his latest creation – the Methane 360 virtual reality 360-degree camera. But before we get to the camera, a little bit of back story on Marwah is in order.
Lack of multi-disciplinary approach at University level prodded me to set up MIT Media Labs India initiative
Marwah did his graduation from IIT Delhi in 2009 and around this time the startup scene in India wasn’t as hot as it is today. There were barely any world-beaters in the startup space, coming out of India. Also the lack of a multi-disciplinary approach to studying or collaborating on projects really irked Marwah.
After moving to the USA in 2009, Marwah worked at Harvard Medical School on a project involving sending a patient’s Google health data to doctors in real time. In addition he also worked on making low-cost medical diagnostic products to monitor ECG, blood pressure and so on. Marwah liked the experience and continued working in the Silicon Valley for a year longer and was also associated with Stanford for a brief while. After all these stints in 2011, Marwah joined the MIT Media Labs in Massachusetts, USA.
“MIT Media Lab is a platform which lets you collaborate with people from different departments such as healthcare, design, journalism, law and so on. It has a multi-disciplinary approach to solving problems. I realised that there was no reason for such a thing to not happen in India. We have the best of educational facilities – IITs, IIMs, NIDs and so on. So we have a huge pool of talent who are not really collaborating. So I thought of starting the MIT Media Labs India initiative, which would work on creating a platform for multi-disciplinary collaborations in order to work on creating innovative products,” says Marwah.
Around 2011-12 when the startup culture was starting to get noticed in India, Marwah noticed that most of the startups were concentrated around providing services and apps, a fact that exists to this day. According to Marwah, most of the companies were knockoffs of services that were already working in the US. “Innovation, for which most of Silicon Valley companies were known, was hardly there in India,” says the 27-year old.
“So from 2011 to 2013 I was in the US only and after that I came to India majorly to scale up the MIT Media Labs India initiative. I did that till about this year and now I have taken a different route. As part of the MIT India initiative we spun off many companies, did some innovative work on sensors, smart textiles - mainly hardware-focussed products. Then I realised that if you really want to change the eco-system here, you need to build products out of India for Indian audiences,” he says.
Tesseract Imaging was started late last year with the sole intention of making end-to-end innovative products from India. The company has hired youngsters from all over the country as well as abroad, who are specialists in their respective fields.
“Through the Media Labs initiative, I realised India has a lot of manufacturing capability and talent to create world-class products. We have released a product called Methane 360, which is the world’s first 360-degree virtual reality camera, in a 6-8 month period,” says Marwah.
According to Marwah, Methane 360 is the only camera of its kind that can create content to be consumed on virtual reality headsets, apart from a regular display. The immediate customers for this kind of product says Marwah are businesses who want to make floor plans that can be anyone from startups such a CommonFloor or restaurants or malls; basically anyone who wants to make a 360-degree 3D map of a place.
Methane 360 comprises a 6-element field of view glass lens with a 5MP image sensor which creates a 12MP 360-degree image output. The camera is placed in a stand-like body, which rotates on a specified axis to give a 360-degree output. The camera housing is made using anodised aluminum for sturdiness. The image processing is done by a 1GHz dual-core processor which does all the background calculations of image alignment, light-metering, HDR, blending images and so on. It comes with 16GB of onboard storage. It can capture 200 images on a single charge according to Marwah.
But the former MIT Labs researcher does not want to stop at just an industrial use camera. “Now we are focussed on the next iteration of the Methane 360 called the V-cam which is a consumer facing product which should come out in April 2016,” he says.
Marwah knows a thing or two about image processing. Back in 2011, as an MIT Media Labs researcher, he had created algorithms which let you do image editing such as isolating subject from the background, changing that background, changing the focus after the fact. He even created filters which when placed before the DSLR sensor, would let the user adjust the focus after shooting the image using Tesseract software.
How is it different from Ricoh Theta S?
That is the natural question that comes to mind, considering the Japanese giant has just released a 360-degree capture camera. Marwah says that the difference lies in the fact that Methane 360 is a 3D capture camera as well, which can shoot content that can be viewed on VR headsets.
“Ricoh Theta S is targetted more towards the consumer base, whereas Methane 360 is looking at the industry - creating maps, floor plans and so on. Google Street View for instance is not accessible on Indian streets. So with this we can create both indoor and outdoor maps. Also when we come out with our consumer product we will be releasing it at a price point that will compete with Ricoh. There will be lots of features in the software which Ricoh does not have. We are the only people now who can do 360-degree live streaming,” defended Marwah.
On the future of imaging
“It has become evidently clear that going forward, there will be only two types of cameras - one on your smartphone and the other would be DSLR which offers more features than current SLRs. Mere point and shoot category will die down,” says Marwah.
A niche product such as Methane 360 or the V-cam will have space to operate in, once the VR headsets become mainstream he feels. “Imagine doing a 360-degree GoPro type footage. This takes a lot of work now, but with our consumer facing V-cam, that wouldn’t be so difficult to achieve,” says Marwah confidently. “We do not want to get into the megapixel or gigapixel race. We want to create cameras which help with story-telling. We want to concentrate on giving users an enhanced emotionally immersive experience.”
Marwah feels that unlike cameras such as Ricoh Theta, the Teserract cameras aren’t one-trick ponies. “Apart from making 360-degree content, you can also use the Methane 360 as a security camera at home. You can also use it for live video conferencing. We certainly have the security, video-conferencing and later the consumer market in mind with these products. We want this camera to be used in every household for whatever purpose,” says Marwah.
Kshitij Marwah will be speaking at the TEDxGateway conference in Mumbai on 5 December at NCPA theatre.