For Cameron Chell, the most important part of the Trace system isn't actually the miniature TRACER1 camera that can visually recognize individuals, nor the quadcopter, RV car, or handheld armature you can swap the camera onto, turning the vehicles into automated drone cameramen. Instead, it's the video network that will aggregate all the footage streaming from these devices that's really captured his imagination.
"It's more about creating a network that creates the most amount of live user content in the world," says the CEO of Trace, the Calgary-rooted company that makes the Tracer.
That’s not to downplay the technology he’s got to take him there. This week at the mammoth Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Mr. Chell will be demonstrating the Tracer system – the camera, mounted to a quadcopter drone – by having it visually lock onto targets and buzz around after them as they walk around its booth.
The system includes the drone, but also a RV-car and a hand-held mount – basically a selfie stick with a gimbal attached – that can be used to hold up a camera so that it can follow its target without needing the user to be aiming it by hand.
Mr. Chell uses the example of his daughter’s music recital: “All the dads are standing there watching the performance through their phones,” he says. With the Tracer on a handheld mount, he can lock the camera onto his daughter and simply hold it aloft, knowing it will track to the subject.
While you might easily imagine the dystopian applications of this kind of thing, Trace’s target market is a bit sunnier: He’s going after the extreme sports crowd, the types that have embraced tiny body-mounted camera like the GoPro as ways of memorializing their feats – and who can also attract substantial sums for sponsorships and advertising.
“Instead of the GoPro experience where the camera is seeing what I’m seeing, now the camera is seeing me,” says Mr. Chell.
The trouble with the GoPro, Mr. Chell says, is that users generate far more footage than they ever extract from the camera, edit together, and post. So, building on the same image-recognition expertise, Tracer bundles in video-editing software which he bills as being able to identify the visually spectacular moments in the footage its drone-mounted cameras record, and automatically extract them into a montage.
The goal of all of this is to generate video and in quantity. Mr. Chell wants to create the world’s largest network of live video, and then tap into advertising and sponsorships on that imagery. (The network has been built, but has yet to be scaled out.)
Trace is an offshoot of his Calgary-based company, Business Instincts Group, though Mr. Chell himself has recently moved to Los Angeles to grow the business closer to the entertainment industry. The technology came of a collaboration with Paul Beard, an American inventor with dozens of patents to his name, including some early work on DVRs and drone work on his recent resume.
The company has raised over $2.5 million in seed funding, and is demonstrating its prototypes; manufacturing is about to begin, with an eye to being on shelves in extreme sports retail outlets within a year. After that, Mr. Chell is interested in targeting the coterie of YouTube superstars, who draw millions of subscribers with their self-made videos – another market that could use a drone cameraperson.
“There’s not a lot of education that’s required there. The market understands what we’re doing.”