Scallop Imaging Leads Micro-Cluster of Boston Companies Trying to Reinvent Camera Tech
Here in the Boston area we like hard technologies. We like companies with weird names. We like companies that have vision. Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you: Tenebraex, SiOnyx, and MC10.
They are the micro-cluster of imaging tech companies. They are working on a mix of far-out stuff and closer-in products, with a multiple-focus approach that befits their chosen field. If they were superheroes, Tenebraex would have eyes in the back of its head (panoramic view); SiOnyx would see in the dark; and MC10 would morph into different shapes depending on what it was looking at. Taken together, they just might reinvent the cameras we use every day.
One example: Imagine an ultra-thin camera phone that can take high-resolution, wide-angle photos and video in a dimly-lit bar or restaurant, or outside at night. That’s what combining the companies’ capabilities could do—though, as far as I know, they are not working together.
Several months ago I first talked with Peter Jones, the CEO of Scallop Imaging, which is the fastest-growing division of Boston-based optical tech firm Tenebraex. Why am I telling you this now? One, I’ve been busy. Two, Scallop is about to debut its third camera product in September. Last week, Jones said the upcoming “as-yet-unnamed camera will be the industry’s first multi-megapixel panoramic camera for very low light environments.”
Scallop’s new camera follows in the footsteps of its earlier products: digital and analog versions of a device (see photo below) that stitches together images from five separate camera sensors into a 180-degree, distortion-free, high-res panoramic view, for security and surveillance applications. The advantage over traditional fisheye lenses and pan-and-tilt cameras? Image quality, cost, and convenience, Jones said.
Some recent customers include hotels, museums, retail stores, and the U.S. military. One of the more intriguing applications of the technology lies in robotics. Last winter, a U.S. Army research lab organized a contest at Fort Bragg, NC. A number of teams sent mobile robots into a remote area to beam back images—presumably to check out the surroundings without having to send troops in. The robot that used Scallop’s camera finished in the top two (in terms of meeting its objectives), and it was the only one that didn’t get stuck in the woods, Jones said. He attributed the performance in part to its wide field of view.
My colleague Wade first profiled Scallop Imaging back in 2008. Since then, the division has grown to about 50 people. Tenebraex, its parent company, is no flash in the pan either. The company started in 1992 and is profitable, having invested in Scallop “multiple millions” of dollars in research and development, Jones said. “The majority of our future growth will come from Scallop.”
The company’s upcoming low-light camera overlaps a bit with another local firm. Beverly, MA-based SiOnyx has a different (and more fundamental) approach to building image sensors that see in the dark. The company, which started in 2005, is trying to bring “black silicon” to the semiconductor industry. This material is silicon that has been treated with laser pulses and chemicals so it absorbs light at certain wavelengths (near-infrared) much more efficiently than conventional photo sensors. The potential results: better night-vision cameras, surveillance equipment, medical imaging devices, and camera phones.
Last fall, SiOnyx completed a $12.5 million second round of venture financing. At that time, CEO Stephen Saylor talked with me about some of the early markets for black silicon technology, and the importance of working with industry partners. The keys to the startup’s success seem to lie in producing black silicon at large enough scale, and being able to piggy-back on conventional silicon-based manufacturing processes.
And then there is the shape-shifter (OK, maybe a bit of an exaggeration). Cambridge, MA-based MC10 is broadly focused on developing flexible and bendy electronics for health, energy, and defense applications, but one of its key new markets is optical tech. Whereas conventional photo sensors are rigid and flat, MC10 is working on a sensor that is curved, like the human retina. That shape, it turns out, is the most compact and efficient way to achieve a wide field of view with just one focusing lens.
That means, if MC10 is successful, its bendy image sensor and optical system could be much smaller than existing ones—so camera phones could be made even thinner, and satellites and unmanned aerial vehicles made lighter for surveillance and reconnaissance purposes. Indeed, for three-year-old MC10, which is coming off its own $12.5 million venture round, the optical market has “billion-dollar-plus potential over time,” CEO Dave Icke said in an interview last month.
In a world where more and more activities get caught on camera, we’ll be watching to see what these companies, and others, do to advance the fundamental technologies and business models in the field.