The long-awaited throwable camera is here, and guess who gets it first?

The police wanted a simple device that can be easily used in the field, which they are getting. But Bounce Imaging is also planning to option its stitch-imaging camera technology to other industries.

mit bounce imaging 2 press
Credit: MIT

There are a lot of conceivable uses for a softball-shaped-and-sized camera that, equipped with Wi-Fi and sensors, can send panoramic images of everything in its line of sight back to a smartphone. Make that a throwable camera, which means its line of sight can extend around corners, onto roofs, under trucks or into tunnels.

While such a camera would be great to have during, say, Mardi Gras, or maybe a particularly rowdy party, the best and highest use of such a device would be to provide a safe view into a dangerous situation, such as a collapsed building or a violent crime in progress.

Which is, as it happens, the type of scenario startup Bounce Imaging had in mind all along when it created the camera, called the Explorer.

Like this.

Bounce Imaging was founded by an MIT alumnus two years ago with assistance from the MIT Venture Mentoring Service. The company has just announced that it will be shipping 100 of its first line of tactical spheres to police forces around the country, according to a release by the MIT Press Office. The general idea is that the police can toss the cameras into potentially hazardous areas to get an immediate glimpse of the dangers — and victims — that may be ahead.

Bounce Imaging CEO Francisco Aguilar got the idea for the Explorer as he followed the tragedy of the Haiti earthquake in 2010. International search-and-rescue teams were having difficulty finding survivors in the rubble using fiber-optic cameras. His thought: Why not pair simple technologies with a smartphone that would require little training or a huge investment?

And so it has happened. But the Explorer's story is not over yet.

Very simple specs

First, though, let's break down the specs, which admittedly have been discussed in various tech publications over the past several months — due in large part to the top prizes the device grabbed at the 2012 MassChallenge Competition and the 2013 MIT IDEAS Global Challenge.

But to recap, they include a thick rubber shell covering that protects the camera. The camera has six lenses coming through at various indented spots (six lenses, not six cameras — a specific design point to keep the costs down). There are also LED lights.

The Explorer also serves as a wireless hotspot in case there is no Internet available.

The user activates the camera and it begins snapping photos every few seconds, which are then uploaded to a mobile device. The software stitches the shots together quickly — faster than any other similar technology on the market, according to Bounce Imaging, and there will be more on that in a moment. Then, voila — a panoramic view of the room or roof or tunnel that is displayed on the mobile screen.

Additional sensors are planned for radiation, temperature and carbon monoxide.

The growing-up years

For the most, part people are only acquainted with the sexier versions of the Explorer — that is, the tricked-out device that wowed judges at MassChallenge and MIT IDEAS.

But to get to this point the Explorer slogged through at least 20 iterations, with a "Medusa of cables and wires in a 3D-printed shell that was nowhere near throwable," as Aguilar put it, as the starting point.

It was police departments in the New England area that helped Aguilar and Bounce Imaging refine that early vision — and by "refine" I mean they discouraged the company from getting too fancy. In the end, it turned out that they just wanted a picture.

A very fast way to stitch images together

And what a picture they are getting. Bounce Imaging's image-stitching software was developed by engineers at the Costa Rican Institute of Technology using algorithms that reduce computational load and work around noise and other image-quality problems.

In practical terms this means the camera can stitch multiple images in less than a second compared to a minute using other methods.

Coming soon to another industry near you

Bounce Imaging is considering other industries as ripe for the Explorer or a similar product, plus or minus a few tweaks and add-ons.  The company is considering optioning its image-stitching technology for drones, video games, movies, or smartphone technologies, according to Aguilar.

Aguilar didn't mention throwing virtual reality into the mix, but I will. It seems that is the next step for this product type — even, including the simple model used by police. Perhaps they might want, for example, instructions or suggestions imposed over a particular type of scene that requires special handling. Those forthcoming sensors for radiation and carbon monoxide will surely, I am sorry to say, be triggered in the field sooner or later.

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