For Stealth HD’s Video Software, A Panorama of Applications

7/10/12Follow @wroush

In 2007, Bill Banta got discharged by the U.S. Navy’s fighter pilot training school because he failed an eye exam. Today, his Silicon Valley startup is building video software that could help pilots by giving them eyes in the back of their heads.

You could call that irony, or serendipity. After all, if Banta had stayed in the Navy, he wouldn’t have been able to apply for a job at Apple, where he ended up running the team that located camera parts for the iPhone. He wouldn’t have gone on to Stanford Business School, and he probably wouldn’t have developed his idea for Stealth HD, whose software stitches the signals from up to four cameras into a real-time, high-definition, fully panoramic video feed.

That’s a technology that could be useful not only to pilots, but to soldiers, athletes, security guards, sports broadcasters, mapping companies—basically, anyone who could do their job better if they had a 360-degree view of the world. Stealth HD’s system works best with four cameras arranged at right angles; it feeds video to a customized viewer on a PC screen, where a user can pan right or left in real time to examine any part of the view. (It works with recorded video too.)

“Imagine a military situation like an armored vehicle with big blind spots,” says Banta. “This would be like poking your head out the top and being able to see everything.”

This May, Stealth HD won the “Product Showcase” portion of the BASES 150k Challenge at Stanford, where Banta is in the middle of the two-year MBA program. Together with co-founder Ross Biestman and former Apple engineer Geoff Donaldson, Banta is busy fundraising for the startup, while at the same time recruiting beta users in markets such as sports, entertainment, and military surveillance. He says deals to deploy the prototype technology are in the works with ESPN, Red Bull, and a couple of NFL teams.

The idea of panoramic moving images isn’t new: If you ever visited the Circle-Vision theater at a Disney theme park, you’ve experienced a primitive version of the concept using nine separate film projectors. Companies such as Immersive Media and yellowBird make computer-age version of Circle-Vision movies, with the added bonus that a user can control the point of view in the finished videos using the mouse or touchpad, the same way they would with a VR panoramic photograph.

But making a 360-degree video is hugely processor-intensive, which means an Immersive Media or yellowBird video has been through a lot of post-production work before you ever see it on the Web. Stealth HD’s focus is on making that processing so fast and efficient that the graphical processing units (GPUs) inside a standard PC or laptop can stitch together a panoramic image in real time. “We are trying to develop a solution that is fully real-time and fully HD, no matter where you are looking,” says Banta. (See the video on page 2 for a demo.)

The idea for Stealth HD hit Banta and Biestman during a 2010 ski trip to Squaw Valley. But they’ve done a lot of slaloming since then.

“We were sitting in line at the lift and we counted 35 people wearing some type of camera on their helmet, like a GoPro or a Contour,” Banta says. “We decided they all looked ridiculous, but the idea was really cool, so we should come up with a way to embed the camera inside the helmet.”

In a further twist, Banta and Biestman decided one camera wasn’t enough. Most skiers are so bad at aiming their helmet-cams that “it’s not a pleasant viewing experience afterward,” Banta says. “We started toying with the idea of having multiple cameras, so you wouldn’t have to worry about which direction your head is pointed.”

Banta already had quite a bit of experience building stuff. As a mechanical-engineering graduate just out of college, he’d started a company to make environmentally friendly foam blanks for surfboard cores (as had others). After that washed out, and after he got ejected from flight school, he joined the camera group at Apple, at the exact moment when the company started putting tiny camera assemblies inside every iPhone and iPod touch. “We went from doing $65 million a year in parts sourcing to well over $1 billion, and I kind of got to take it through that process,” Banta says.

It wasn’t until after he’d left Apple, worked briefly for Square, and entered Stanford that he got a chance to pursue the pano-ski-helmet idea. But almost as soon as Banta and Biestman began speaking with potential investors, they realized the project wasn’t fundable. “Everybody we talked to said, ‘A, that’s not a big enough idea, and B, don’t underestimate how expensive it’s going to be to generate all this custom hardware and mass-produce it when GoPro and Contour already have a big chunk of the market.’”

By that time, late 2011, the startup had already begun developing the software they knew they’d need to stitch together video signals from multiple cameras. The solution was obvious: … Next Page »

Wade Roush is Chief Correspondent and Editor At Large at Xconomy. You can subscribe to his Google Group or e-mail him at wroush@xconomy.com. Follow @wroush

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