In front of a packed house, Jeff Glasse grasped a mike at the Village Lantern down on Bleecker. “My brother’s in the army and he’s always sending me pictures of himself—pictures of him and his cub pack, whatever you call the other guys he’s with,” the standup comedian said. “In every picture he sends me he’s wearing camouflage. I don’t really have the heart to tell him that I can see him, in these pictures.”
There was peal of laughter from a woman in the crowd.
Stand-up is a sideline for Mr. Glasse, whose website home page features two portraits of him. On the left Mr. Glasse is dressed in all black, a microphone in one hand, his other hand out in a “What’s the deal with…” shrug reminiscent of Jerry Seinfeld. On the right Mr. Glasse is standing in front of a white board, wearing glasses, holding an iPhone with a strange looking video camera attached. “I’m a comedian. I’m also the CEO of a tiny new company,” reads the website’s banner. “Which one makes me more pathetic?”
That self-deprecation is Mr. Glasse’s own form of camouflage. A student of 17th-century literature at Princeton, he worked in video production for ESPN and the United Nations before founding, DIGIT, a company that helped pioneer the field of interactive exhibits for museums. These days Mr. Glasse is is the co-founder and CEO of Kogeto, a small New York startup trying to revolutionize the way people shoot and watch video by producing the world’s first affordable, handheld, panoramic video camera.
“Jeff has an overactive brain,” says Mark Atkinson, founder of TeachScape, an enterprise software company focused on the educational market, where Mr. Glasse worked for a decade before founding Kogeto. “It’s like the stand-up comedy, he does that because he likes the challenge. It exercises a certain part of his mind.”
In 2009 TeachScape saw the opportunity to win a massive research project being funded by the Gates Foundation. It required the winning bidder to shoot 25,000 hours of classroom video over two years for a longitudinal study. “We needed our best problem solver, so I put Jeff on the job,” Mr. Atkinson said.
Having shot a lot of video in his day, Mr. Glasse knew that a standard setup, with multiple people shooting footage from different angles, would never work. “You would spook the kids, and even with a couple guys, you wouldn’t catch every detail.”
He looked into panoramic cameras, like the ones mounted on Google’s street view cars, but found they were expensive and bulky. So, despite having no experience in engineering, manufacturing or optics, he decided to just build his own.
The result, dubbed Lucy, cut the price of the cheapest, non-professional panoramic camera from about $150,000 to $1,500. On the software side, it had once taken 40 hours to process a single hour of panoramic video. With Lucy the ratio was one-to- one. Teachers loved the small, unobtrusive unit, which could capture 360 degrees of activity without needing to be monitored or adjusted. “It was like we gave them a mirror they could turn on their own teaching, to understand what the students were responding to and when they were losing their attention,” Mr. Atkinson said. The Gates Foundation chose Lucy for its study.
“I come back to New York and I see people, just regular people wearing camouflage. I fucking hate that,” Mr. Glasse told the crowd at Village Vines, his face twisting into a snarl. “I will get in my car and I will drive around Manhattan looking for people in camouflage. When I see someone I HIT THEM.” He shifts moods from anger to innocence.“When the police show I say, oh I didn’t see them. Must have been the camouflage. I thought it was a fern, officer.”
People often ask Mr. Glasse how he finds time to run a new company and be a stand-up comedian. “The truth is, I don’t have kids. Most people get off work, they have to go home and spend time with their family. I work on my comedy. It’s my passion.”
After the success of Lucy, Mr. Glasse realized he had found another passion. In April of 2010, he left Teachscape and founded Kogeto with David Sosnow, a film producer and cinematographer who helped build the Lucy project.
“It was the two of us sitting in an office at WeWork labs in Soho,” said Mr. Sosnow. speaking with Betabeat by phone. “We faced in opposite directions, but the space was so small the backs of our chairs touched one another. We just had our cell phones, so we would go into the bathroom when we were on a conference call, because that’s where we got the best reception.”
Over the next year the team at Kogeto designed Dot, the world’s first panoramic camera small enough and cheap enough for the mass market. They raised a small amount of venture capital funding, $720,000, and put together a Kickstarter project. “The idea was to sell a few units and kind of test the market out,” Mr. Sosnow said.
The Lucy had been a revolution at $1,500, but on Kickstarter, backers who gave $99 would get their own Dot camera. The goal was to raise $20,000. More than 1,000 backers ended up pledging over $120,000 into Dot before Kogeto shut the Kickstarter down, and pre-orders kept pouring in to the company’s website.
For a young company without a track record in the consumer electronics space, this was an overwhelming success. Instead of shooting for 2,000 units on their first production run, Kogeto made plans to sell and ship 120,000 units before Christmas.
The popularity of the iPhone is the secret to making the Dot cheap and accessible to such a large market. Instead of building an independent camera unit, the team at Kogeto has designed a small, sleek attachment that fits over the lens of the iPhone’s built-in camera. Go ahead, say it. An iPhone accessory.
Viewed normally through the iPhone, the video appears like a small, 360-degree doughnut. But after filtering it through Kogeto’s software, which users can download as an iPhone app, the viewers sees something resembling a wide-screen movie. Users can swipe around the scene, all 360 degrees, with the touch of their fingers, a cinematic experience unlike anything most of us have ever known.
The Dot represents a new kind of cheap, modular hardware, which relies on a smartphone but adds significant value, a hybrid product some think may represent the next phase of New York’s tech renaissance. “I’ll use Apple because it’s the most famous” Peter Semmelhack, founder of the Chelsea based hardware firm, Bug Labs, told Betabeat. “Today you can avail yourself of over 250,000 applications in the App Store, but do a quick inventory of the interesting hardware you can buy for your iPhone, it’s maybe a couple dozen attachments at best.”
Mr. Semmelhack said that New York has hardware in its DNA. “Look at the history of New York, with AT&T’s Bell Labs and IBM’s research park. We invented things like the transistor, the laser, the radio. We were once a center for innovation in hardware, and the explosion of mobile devices is an opportunity for us to rekindle that industry.”
For Kogeto, the biggest discovery has been the collection of raw, under-valued talent in Rochester, NY, a five hour drive north-west of the city along the border of Lake Ontario. As the headquarters of Kodak and the Rochester Institute of Technology, the city was long a mecca for hardware engineers, optical experts and manufacturing plants. But over the last decade, Kodak cut its work force in the city from roughly 60,000 to 6,000. What little is left may soon be chopped up, as the once-mighty camera maker is sold off in pieces for its valuable patent portfolio.
“There is this incredible community up there, and a lot of start-ups are popping up,” said Mr. Glasse, who cracked no jokes during two long phone conversations with Betabeat. He travels frequently to Rochester to work on everything from the custom tools that will make the Dot to the plastic that goes into the attachment to the packaging in which the product ships. “We’re big fans of Apple, the simplicity and elegance they bring to their products. But we didn’t want to imitate their secrecy or their reliance on questionable overseas labor.”
He added, “Maybe the profit margins will take a hit, but we don’t to make money on the back of some kid getting $2 a day.”
Mr. Glasse is similarly relying on a homegrown marketing plan. “With Kickstarter we were able to essentially find our 1,000 true fans,” he pointed out, “and they are going to help us find the next 10,000.”
“I hate the fucking newspaper. Who told them to make it three feet tall with no staples? You get on the subway and it’s like you’re trying to do this crazy oragami. You end up punching the homeless guy next to you in the face. Who you didn’t even see there. Because he’s wearing camouflage.”
In Rochester, there is little word of the boom going on in the New York tech scene, where 19-year-old CEOs are a normal occurrence. “The real danger is that our young people are leaving because they don’t see opportunity,” noted Jim Murphy, Vice-President of Advent Tool, a custom molder that is making the plastic attachment and packaging for Dot. “It’s more than just Kodak up here. We have a history with Xerox, with the optical engineers at Bausch and Lomb, just an immense amount of talent here that spans back for generations. But as more and more of that work has dried up and gone overseas, our new generation are moving elsewhere, not staying Rochester and learning these crafts.”
If start-ups like Kogeto can tap the exploding smartphone market, marrying New York’s venture capital, software savvy and marketing muscle with Rochester’s labor force and hardware expertise, a corridor of innovation could open up similar to the one that gave Silicon Valley its name during the boom of computer chip makers like Fairchild and Intel. Gotham-based funding platforms like Kickstarter and Quirky are allowing start-ups and solo entrepreneurs to find the seed capital and target market for their products at little to no cost.
The future already looks bright for Bre Pettis, a pioneering member of the hacker collective, NYC Resistor. His company Makerbot just raised $10 million to make 3-D printers available in every home. From his office in Gowanus, Brooklyn, Mr. Pettis declared we are on the verge of something big. “It is a great time to have a hardware startup. The infrastructure for raising capital toward early stage hardware start-ups is there with Kickstarter and angel investors. The software and hardware is also at a point where it is modular and quick to prototype and get into production. Build it and they will come.”
“I don’t think we really know where this will all go,” Mr. Glasse said, when reached late on a Sunday night, having spent the better part of his day at the office. “I’m making exquisitely detailed decisions about plastics and supply chains and packaging that I’ve never thought about before, and I’ll probably have to live with those choices for the next year. What I do know is that me and the team I have put together are crazy about panoramic video. We’re passionate about the product and we believe once people get it in their hands, it will change the way they see the world.”