The Miss Universe contest was perhaps the most devastating loss of my life. Oh, not as a contestant… as an “all in” PR gamble that failed spectacularly and essentially bankrupted our startup.
It was all so tempting. We had created the first portable 3D camera: a laser-bouncing device that captured an object’s geometry while a separate sensor grabbed the 2D image. The output was sent to a computer that would wrap the texture around the triangulated shape in close to real time, creating a photorealistic image of the object that could be panned, zoomed, and spun in any direction. And in 1997, that was pretty cool.How did we get the word out? Well, there was this new thing called the internet and my friend was the director of the Miss Universe pageant. He was thinking about ways to generate publicity, and all those women’s heads would look very cool in 3D.
Subsequently, the broadcaster, NBC, would publicize the whole thing on its new website and drive people there. We thought investors would flock to us and we’d be rich.
Of course, to get a whole head, you need maybe four cameras going at once, but we only had two; Radio Shack charged a lot for powerful lasers back then. With so many contestants, we’d need at least two imaging stations. A quick calculation showed that with the money we had, we could just barely afford the parts for six more cameras, airfares, and hotel rooms. Roll ‘em!
Well, a couple of small problems emerged. One was that our “gluing” algorithms, which combined 3D images taken from different angles, also generated Frankenstein-like seams. The other was that our testing on human heads, which had necessarily been conducted on the several male team members to that point, had failed to indicate that the system could not capture long hair (which scattered the laser instead of reflecting it). Scarred and bald, these women were not so impressive.
I’ll spare you the tortured and frantic efforts made to save the situation, because they failed. We were broke and product-less.
After a night of drinking (the event was held in Las Vegas, after all), we realized that we did have some pretty powerful software for manipulating complex images, and that we could continue to focus on that without the expense of hardware development. Soon enough we were selling our code as an efficient system for streaming large, complex files over dial up… and as the internet really took off, that became a powerful idea. So powerful, in fact, that a public company looking to add a “dot com” story to its investor relations pitch decided we were just what they needed.
All opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Gust.