Helping the world see in 360 degrees

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With $2.5 million in contracts, Circle Optics is looking to offer different ways to view the world. The company, a member of Luminate NY’s second cohort, is known for creating Hydra, a stitchless 360-degree camera.

These projects involve improving Hydra further so it can fit on drones, go portable, and even travel into space.

Most 360-degree cameras, which are used for virtual reality spaces or projects like Google Street View, have issues with perspective as they depend on overlapping fields of view for their effect. 

“If not calibrated correctly, distortions occur—like when you watch a 3D movie without your glasses on and see a double image,” says CEO Zakariya Niazi, describing a simplified version of this issue.

“In the human eye, if you hold your two fingers together in front of you, you’ll see that your back finger moves if you close one eye then the other,” he adds. “It comes back to the way our eyes are set up—not for seeing in all 360 degrees.”

That perspective issue requires “stitching” to fix. Stitching is a variable cost, sometimes up to $10,000 a minute for video shot in 360. Circle Optics’ Hydra camera can skip the stitching step, offering a greater frame rate, scene complexity or length instead.

Currently, the Hydra camera is about the size of a basketball and is very heavy. The contracts will require changes to this system—one requires the camera to be mounted on a drone.

The Hydra camera

“It’s really good at going into a room on a robot and capturing that for a virtual environment. It’s not good at going into hard-to-reach places,” Niazi says. “Drones are very good at going into hard to reach places—they’re basically flying tripods. But the cameras on them can only weigh a few pounds.”

Among the recent contracts is one from the U.S. Air Force technology accelerator, AFWERX, to deploy the Hydra system from a vehicle to collect data.

“The next major step in the development of the camera system involves cutting the wires and going to full portability. 360-degree surround imagery contains large amounts of data and requires lots of computational power for real-time, wireless connectivity,” says Peter Stubler, a principal investigator with Circle Optics.

Circle Optics also is helping the U.S. government upgrade its satellite technology. While satellite capabilities are able to capture images of the world over every day, the government wants the frequency to improve.

“They want it to be with a faster refresh rate, which requires a panoramic view,” Niazi says, noting that this could help provide important up-to-the-minute details for situations such as the war in Ukraine.

Circle Optics was aided by business accelerators Luminate NY and GENIUS NY in securing its contracts. Niazi has enjoyed working with both organizations and even hired a Luminate NY award judge and former IMAX engineer Andrew Kurtz, who gave Circle Optics one of its first major investments.

Zakariya Niazi

At the end of the day, all this improvement for 360-degree cameras is in service of what Niazi sees as both the next stage of media consumption and a step toward greater empathy.

“The way we consume news started off as two-dimensional. We read the newspaper or, now, we look at our screens. That’s really like we’re outsiders peering in from a window. With immersive 3D content, that changes. You can become the insider now looking out. That’s what will cause people to empathize in a different way,” Niazi says, pointing to news organizations like the New York Times that have begun cultivating immersive storytelling by using augmented reality, virtual reality and 3D web features.

According to Deloitte Insights, overall spending on augmented reality and virtual reality  related products rose in 2020 to $12 billion globally, up 50 percent from 2019. While its success is yet to be determined, Mark Zuckerberg spent $10 billion on the VR focused Metaverse in 2021.  

Niazi believes that the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced quarantines and social isolation, has made people start to see the potential of Circle Optics’ technology. In the future, experiences previously limited by financial power could be made available due to 360-degree cameras.

“Imagine strapping on a VR helmet and booting up an immersive video of the Great Wall of China or a concert of your favorite band,” Niazi says. “It can democratize these experiences for people.”

That dream started long before Niazi started Circle Optics. As a student at the University of Rochester, he wondered why the world had not been mapped continuously for someone to virtually walk around it. He returned to that question when Circle Optics was founded in 2017 in New York City. The following year, the company moved to Rochester where they found the talent pool was deep.

The city has been “the perfect place” for Circle Optics, Niazi says.

Jacob Schermerhorn is a Rochester Beacon contributing writer. The Beacon welcomes comments from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name.

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