Last week, the Occipital team packed their bags and gathered in the Rocky Mountains for 3 days of planning, team-building, and fun. All the event details were kept under wraps to the team, who spent the week leading up to the retreat filled with inquisitions about what we were to be doing and some pretty harebrained ideas of what was in store for the team (Trust falls? Man vs. Wild style challenges? Hunger Games?).
We chose to head to Steamboat Springs, staying in an incredible place. While Steamboat may primarily be known as a ski destination, we found plenty of awesome things to do even without the powder.
3 days away went quick, as we enjoyed time with each other, hiking, a pizza cooking lesson (where we perfected our pizza crust toss), a trip to Strawberry Hill hot springs, hot tubbing, pool, shuffleboard, basketball, and yes, plenty of reflecting on the highlights of the year past and planning for the next big thing.
To the highlight reel:
Occipital is proud to be a TechStars company. Beyond spending 3 great months doing more faster in 2008, we continue to benefit as active members of the Techstars family. We keep close ties with the program, especially those in the Boulder program. That’s where we first met Danny, and well, we’ll let him tell you the rest of the story:
A year ago I was bored. I was at a gigantic company, too big for its own good. My job title said Software Engineer, yet I was averaging about one line of code per meeting I was attending. That lack of productivity was slowly sucking the life out of me. My only coding joy came on nights and weekends when I was able to tinker with the apps or websites I had built to teach myself some new things. It was time to search for something more exciting.
However, beyond looking for excitement, I had no direction. Something fast paced, a place where I could help create and innovate, but where? Startups seemed meet those criteria, but as a complete outsider to that world, where would I begin? How would I know if a company was right for me?
I’d been following TechStars for years and it seemed like a holy grail for tech startups, but without a company or even a cofounder, it didn’t look like I’d have the pleasure of learning about building a company from some of the greatest mentors in the world anytime soon.
That’s when I discovered Hackstars, a back door into the TechStars program. As a Hackstar, I’d get to go through the TechStars program as a mercenary developer, helping out the companies wherever I could for the duration of the 3 month program. I’d also be meeting and learning from some of the greatest entrepreneurs around, just like everyone else in Techstars. The skies opened, light rained down on my keyboard, and I started my application. After a few weeks (and some incessant emailing) I met with Nicole Glaros and secured my spot as a Hackstar for TechStars Boulder 2011.
The 3 months I spent in TechStars were everything I’d hoped they’d be and more. I was looking for new opportunities and I found them in tremendous, tremendous supply after the program. I went from a complete outsider to having some of the best connections you can have in the Boulder startup community (and beyond). As it came time to find a job I was put in touch with Occipital, a company I saw as one of the great success stories of TechStars. It was soon clear this was the place I could proudly sport my new Hackstar credentials.
Shortly after demo day I started working at Occipital as a mobile engineer. When I had dreamed of something new and exciting a few months earlier, I couldn’t have pictured things working out as well as they did. I owe most of it, if not all, to being a Hackstar. If you’re thinking about applying, do it. You won’t regret it.
We’re happy to have Danny’s mobile development talents on the Occipital team. In addition to cranking out code to support 360 Panorama on Android, Danny is the founding member of the Occipital quadcopter R&D team.
We’re excited to be joining 13 other TechStars companies on the first night of SXSW to kick things off right: By celebrating startups and entrepreneurship!
Headed to Austin for SXSW? We’d love to have you as our guest! Come meet our team, mingle with other TechStars companies and friends, and grab a few drinks on us.
The fun kicks off Friday night, March 9th at Cedar Street Courtyard at 8pm.
RSVP now to save your spot!
Just before Christmas in 2010, Jeff and I were discussing Occipital’s plans for the next year. We had launched 360 Panorama 3.0 in early December, and it was a major success – we got to the #3 spot in the App Store and we were getting lots of really amazing 360 views uploaded every day. We decided was that we really needed a place for people to see these 360 views and we needed someone to help us build it. We split ways to get ready for Christmas, and then an hour later I got this message from Jeff:
Some dude named Mick launched the gallery for us:
i really hope @occipital makes a gallery of all their public panos
and decided why wait?
Of course we followed up with him immediately to discuss working together, and soon he left Santa Monica and joined us in Boulder on a contract basis.
Over the past few months we’ve been impressed with Mick’s web wizardry, and today we’re excited to announce that he has officially joined Occipital as part of our core team!
You’ll be able to see what he’s been working for the past few months really soon, but just in his spare time he:
- Got asked by O’Reilly media to write a book about CouchDB and Node.js.
- Won a free pass to Google IO by winning this contest by building a walking tour of San Francisco in a couple of hours overnight.
- Found time to model for Mick’s Shirts.
As for his dedication, we’ve got panoramic proof:
We’re proud to have Mick Thompson on the Occipital team, and can’t wait to show you the awesome work he’s been doing!
About 72 hours ago, the RedLaser 2.5 update was published to the App Store. It was a soft-launch with our new partner, TheFind, which is the fastest growing search engine for shopping in the US with over 400 million products in its search index. In the 2.5 release we also improved our scanning speed (6% faster), and made a handful of interface improvements.
Behind the scenes, we were racing to get the technology ready for Black Friday, and in our rush, we made a mistake. In the US (and initially in the UK, too), we completely replaced Google Product Search with TheFind. We were overconfident in the volume of search results that would be immediately available from TheFind alone. Over the last 72 hours, based on your feedback, we and TheFind realized that this wasn’t the right decision for RedLaser users. In response, effective immediately, as of this posting, we have re-enabled Google Product Search results and are now providing them along with TheFind’s Product Search results. This means that in almost every case, we will have substantially better search results in version 2.5 than in the last version, 2.2.
The only case where RedLaser will now display fewer results is for some products on Amazon.com. The reason is that Amazon has a policy that prohibits querying their API from mobile applications unless they give explicit written permission. We asked for permission a few months ago, and were told “No.” We then tried a number of work-arounds and unfortunately, Amazon asked us to remove them as well. Despite the limitation, in some cases Google and TheFind may be able to provide Amazon results and will include them when possible.
Meanwhile, we knew it would be extremely frustrating to users if we removed Amazon with nothing in its place. So we began working on a partnership with TheFind. TheFind, we soon found out, has an incredible product search engine that is comparable to Google. They include products from over 500,000 stores and online sellers, a number that continues to grow. By featuring results from TheFind, we can now show local results for many products, a request of many RedLaser users. They also have coupons, reviews, local addresses, and comprehensive store information, which we can’t wait to start tapping into. Previously, with Google as our primary search provider, we were limited in how we could improve RedLaser. Occipital is first and foremost a mobile computer vision company. (That means we’re rocket scientists when it comes to image processing, but not when it comes to crawling the Internet for products.) Despite a lot of great ideas, we didn’t have the resources to focus on both computer vision and better results. With TheFind, we now have a partner committed to helping Occipital improve mobile product search relevance, the accuracy of barcode data, as well as providing information never before available in RedLaser, starting with local results (They’re rocket scientists when it comes to shopping.)
We’re confident that our partnership with TheFind is going to be a great one ― one that is focused on creating the best user experience possible and eventually paving the way for a new kind of shopping. Occipital will continue to build the best vision-based technology to power RedLaser’s barcode scanner (and barcode scanning is just the tip of the iceberg), while TheFind will innovate new ways to provide you great shopping search results. We stumbled a little with our rushed launch, but we’re back on track, and we hope that RedLaser will always be your trusted companion for mobile product search.
Keep the feedback coming. We’re listening and improving.
Thank you for using RedLaser.
Additional Release Notes:
- TheFind and Google Product search are now enabled for the US and UK. Google Product Search also supports searching for results in Euros, so RedLaser can be used today with Google Product Search in Europe. In other vicinities, we currently cannot surface listings. Let us know if you have data sources we should look into, and if you have one that can already be searched via barcode, check out RedLaser custom apps.
- Custom Apps improved: As in 2.2, you can create a RedLaser custom app that searches just about any website with barcode, and in 2.5, we’ve improved the launch screen to make it seamless, and added a built-in browser so you don’t have to redirect back to Mobile Safari after you’ve scanned in your custom app ( use “noexit=YES” ). We’ll keep improving Custom Apps so that RedLaser is even more useful in areas where our coverage is poor.
Occipital has come a long way in 2009. In late December 2008, we were running on fumes. Our TechStars funding was spent. We had recently made the hard decision to postpone fundraising, while a number of our cohort were closing their seed stage or series A rounds. We had ditched the concept we had spent all summer refining. Not that it wasn’t a good idea, but it required significant funding to pull off, and factors outside of our control made fundraising a virtual non-starter.
We were down to that last month where we could pay the bills with our personal reserves. I had come straight from earning a stipend in the Intelligent Systems CSE PhD program at Michigan, which means my personal reserves were more oil slick than Alaskan Oil Reserve. Vikas probably had a little more, but cost of living in NYC where he had been working put us on pretty even ground.
So we did what we hadn’t needed to do up until that point: we asked for a little financial help from family, the only people who really know what you’re capable of, and those who are the most bullish on your odds of success. We opened a bank account and deposited 20K, in on a convertible note from my mom. For what it’s worth, almost everyone in my family was willing to help, but we didn’t want to put more at risk than we needed to.
We did another thing we hadn’t done yet: we decided to make Occipital cash flow positive. Yep, we just decided we’d go ahead and do that. We joked numerous times about registering and publicly displaying status on ‘isoccipitalcashflowpositive.com‘ as a sort of way to induce pressure on ourselves.
We also tried to make a “business plan” for the first time in company history. Ok, in truth it wasn’t really a business plan. Vikas got assigned that job and as much as I tried convincing him to include businessey stuff, there weren’t any fancy growth charts or 5-year projections. But it was our biggest effort to date in terms of showing the business potential of Occipital.
We had decided to build next generation augmented reality technology, but we realized doing it like we wanted was still going to require some money.
So we did something that didn’t require a lot of money. On February 3rd, we launched an iPhone application called ClearCam. At its core, it’s actually the beginnings of our next-generation augmented reality engine. But you’d never know that from using it: To users, it magically doubles the resolution of their iPhone 2G/3G camera. It also takes photos faster than any iPhone application to date, and can intelligently select sharp photos. Since the camera was perhaps the most-criticized element of the first and second gen iPhones, ClearCam was a hit, and has been downloaded 780,000 times.
There’s a premium version of ClearCam which unlocks a couple of features, and costs $9.99. We had bets on how long it would take for anyone to actually pay us. For one thing, the free version gives you all the premium features for 15 days. For another thing, due to the low-level way we interfaced with the camera, we weren’t able to use the App Store for distribution, and we had to roll our own payment system. So we figured it’d be maybe 24-48 hours after launch that the first purchase would come in. In reality, it was more like 10 minutes.
And with that, we were cash flow positive. Near-death averted. We upgraded to Ramen noodles after consulting OBE-1.
We really wanted to get back to augmented reality. We started to spend every waking moment thinking about AR with Paul Berberian and his longtime business partners. We were onto a mindblowing AR concept that everyone was excited about. We knew we could build it. But alas, this required money too. An introductory meeting was held with prospective investors, and the result was only half positive. The technology risk was too much. We could’ve kept pushing, but the rejection took the wind out of everyone’s sails, and we eventually parted ways with Paul after discussing at least 12 less-risky alternatives. Although we never became business partners, Paul is still in many ways the most significant mentor we’ve had.
Fundraising hopes nixed again. Back to bootstrapping.
ClearCam was still selling and we decided we could afford an office. Up until then, we were office nomads. Our lowest office experience is shown in this recruiting video from our dingy NYC apartment/office. We moved into a new office with Ben and Dan from Devver, another TechStars 2008 company that builds Ruby developer tools in the cloud.
March 1. We realized not one of the 30,000 iPhone applications on the App Store was capable of reading product barcodes (Natively anyway. There were a couple that worked with an add-on lens). Everyone thought it wasn’t possible without autofocus. The best open source barcode project out there couldn’t do it. But we figured we could. I often say that “If you can define a visual recognition task well enough, we can build a computer program that does it as well or better than humans.” In this case, we had to beat humans, because not even people can read barcodes imaged without autofocus a couple of inches away from the iPhone.
On May 15, we launched RedLaser for $1.99 on the iPhone App Store. An iPhone barcode scanner that worked with a carefully-taken photo. By that time, there was actually another app, pic2shop, by a computer vision guy in Belgium which could read barcodes, so we couldn’t say we were first. Damn. But we were more accurate, and we had phase-shifting updates planned.
May 28. We had a prototype that could scan barcodes without the still photo requirement. On June 16, the application was approved by Apple for distribution on the App Store. Aha! This time we were first: First realtime mobile barcode scanner that doesn’t require autofocus. We also learned a lesson: it’s way harder to get press when you update an application, even if the update is more significant than the first launch. That’s a potential caveat with the release-early, release-often strategy that we generally believe in. But we did get a great piece of coverage.
We’re getting closer to a scalable business. RedLaser, in its paid App Store and free more advanced Beta forms, has been installed on 95,000 different iPhones and has generated about double ClearCam’s revenue.
Occipital is morphing from an application company to a technology platform company that happens to make a few applications on the platform, too. As soon as Apple allows it, we’ll be powering barcode scanning in three already-popular iPhone applications. A key turning point will be when we generate more revenue from technology licensing than from direct to consumer applications. Both in our own applications and applications built via our network of partners, we intend to make Occipital synonymous with seamless computer vision. Barcodes aren’t the only thing we’ll teach computers to see.
What are we launching next? Will we end up raising money or bootstrap all the way? Are we finally going to launch something viscerally recognizable as augmented reality?
We have more than one thing up our sleeve, and the future looks great for Occipital, but I think we’re still in the crawler on the way to the launch pad.
We are just starting the search to find an extremely talented full-time engineer to join our team in Boulder.
The spot will be an extremely crucial one – we need someone that’s both incredibly talented in our areas of focus, but also able to work alongside the founders at breakneck pace and long hours. You’ll need academic prowess and startup mentality. We’re looking for the best of the best.
We have mind-bendingly exciting products already in the works, but if we’re successful in finding the right person, we expect this person will be instrumental in helping us craft our future products, as well as the future of mobile visual search.
We moved to Boulder about 4 months ago to participate in TechStars. Before getting here, I didn’t know much about Boulder except that it was a liberal city near the mountains and it was home to the University of Colorado, the team that beat my beloved Wolverines in 1994.
What we found was a thriving tech startup community nestled up against the beautiful foothills of the Rockies. The tech community here is incredibly supportive and filled with smart, interesting, and fun people. The mountains are beautiful, the air is clean, people are healthy, and the local beers are awesome.
If you want to experience Boulder for yourself, 20 boulder tech startups are hosting an all expenses paid job fair for 100 kickass developers. Here’s what TechCrunch had to say.
One of the things I’ve often read about doing a startup is that there are amazing highs and disappointing lows. We’ve definitely had our share of both, and when things get tough I think about why I’m doing this.
What gets me out of bed in the morning (or afternoon if we’ve been up late working) is that we’re working on hard, interesting problems that have the potential to change the world in some way and that I get to work with one of the smartest people I know. It also helps that I have the support of my amazing family, awesome friends, and how we’ve become part of the great tech community here in Boulder (which means more friends and smart people!).
We’ve got some exciting things on the way here at Occipital, so bring on the lows – they’ll make the highs we reach even sweeter.
Speaking of the slackers… Andrew recently unveiled the TechStars lipdub, which is an accurate portrayal of how we spent our days this summer. And by days, I mean one single hour. The beer is all product placement, that’s how TechStars stays afloat. It’s true. By true, I mean false.