Before COVID shifted work from the office to our, bedrooms, living rooms or an Airbnb in Costa Rica, there was a code for professional appearance. It mostly centered around dressing smart and having a firm handshake. But, now that we only see our colleagues as squares on a screen, what does professionalism look like? In the era of Zoom, perhaps looking professional is less about khakis and more about cameras.
Yet, most webcams are outdated hardware that delivers a low-quality image. We live in a world where every digital image of ourselves has been edited before we present it to the world. When we post pictures of vacations on Instagram to our friends, they’re perfect. But when we log onto Zoom for our professional lives, we’re generally stuck with low-quality webcams unless we want to spend thousands on a professional studio setup with a DSLR camera and a podcast microphone.
A new hardware startup Opal just launched the Opal C1 to solve this problem. They aim to bring studio level camera and microphone to the market at a fraction of the price. The Opal C1 includes the following features:
- 4K video, a collection of mics that filter out background noise and improve clarity,
- bokeh depth of field effect, which makes your video look like its shot on a high quality DSLR,
- machine learning to zoom in on your face and follow you within the frame, and
- manual controls to fine tune your camera like a DSLR.
All of this is packed into a sleek piece of hardware reminiscent of Dieter Rams, the iconic 1960’s product designer. In accordance with Rams’ ninth principle, the C1 is sustainable. It’s designed to have a long lifespan and be recycled at end of life. The packaging is 100% recyclable, with none of the polyurethanes typically used in boxes. And the camera is less than 1% plastic, with most of the device being fully recyclable.
However, the magic happens inside. What sets the Opal C1 apart from most webcams is that rather than just being a peripheral device, it actually has computing power onboard the camera itself. Much of the gains in imagery that have been recognized on the iPhone in the last few years has been driven by the ability to process images in real-time on your device to optimize a given photo. Thanks to the Intel MyriadX chip, Opal is using similar machine learning and computer vision processing on the camera to optimize the quality of the video. Intel’s new 14 nanometer VPU chip makes everything from editing to auto-focus silky smooth and enables new things like a depth-based bokeh effect.
After a few days of using the Opal C1, I’m impressed. Compared to my $200 high-end 4K Logitech Brio I had been using previously. The Opal’s setup is much easier. The software was simple to download install and use, whereas the Logitech software still baffles me after more than a year. The installation on the Opal was truly plug and play, not so much with the Logitech Brio. The quality of image and granularity of control of the Opal is far superior to the Logitech Brio. The Opal is more expensive at $300, but I’d say the overall quality is at least 100% better, and the experience will only improve.
Overall, the Opal C1 is probably 90% as good as a $5,000 DSLR studio setup for less than 1/10th of the price with a much more user-friendly setup and operation.
So, what’s the story behind the camera?
Opal was founded by Veeraj Chugh, who lead product at Uber and Jump, Stefan Sohlstrom, a designer and product manager who’s worked at Plaid, Otto, and Uber Freight, and Kenny Sweet Industrial designer who’s built products for Beats and Google. The team came together during the pandemic. In March of 2020, as the world was coming to grips with the lockdown and everybody suddenly went from in-person meetings, to endless Zoom calls Chugh said, “We collectively had this realization that like, wow, my webcam sucks. Why is it that I walk around with a DSLR in my pocket, but the thing that I’m actually using for seven hours a day doesn’t look so good? This opportunity is massive, and nobody is doing anything about it.”
So, the team started tinkering on nights and weekends. As they delved deeper into camera technology, they realized that most webcams were based on outdated hardware, and none had the compute power onboard to get studio-quality video. Sohlstrom recalls, “What we’ve learned is that modern quality cameras are 25 to 40% hardware. The rest of it is like computational photography, computer vision, machine learning, which improves the image more drastically.” They believed that with the combined talent on their team they had a chance to be good at both the hardware and the software required to build a breakthrough camera. They began building the hardware in January of 2021, and the Software in March of 2021.
They’ve raised a Seed round from Kindred Ventures, 776 Ventures, Offline Ventures, and others who have changed the camera world forever: cofounder of Instagram Mike Krieger, cofounder of YouTube Chad Hurley, cofounder of Twitch Kevin Lin, cofounder of Xiaomi Hong Feng, and Hugo Barra – progenitor of the Metaverse vision at Facebook. We also have some great angels who’ve helped us along the way, Emilie Choi, President at Coinbase; Jeremy Cai CEO of Italic, Sahil Lavingia cofounder of Gumroad, Liam Casey founder and CEO of PCH International, Manik Gupta SVP of Teams and Skype at Microsoft, Matt Mullenweg cofounder and CEO of WordPress and many more.
Then in September, Alexis Ohanian, one of their investors, tweeted about the camera which created a deluge of interest. The story sprinted to the top of Hacker News, which ended up crashing their website three times. Once the dust settled Opal C1 had a 16,000-person waiting list. This week they are publicly launching, which means that they are allowing people on the waitlist to purchase on a first come first serve basis. The software is still in beta and will be continuously upgraded on an ongoing basis to enhance the quality of the video and audio experience.
Opal is making it easy to look and sound professional on video calls. This team is focused on building the best camera on the market today, and over the coming months will be continuously pushing the product to bring more delight to users. Ultimately, they are giving professionals a digital identity that allows them to show up to their meetings looking good so they can perform with confidence.