In this engaging and insightful Q&A session, we delve into the innovative world of Center Cam, a groundbreaking webcam technology. We’re joined by the founder, Ian Foster, who shares a compelling narrative about the journey from concept to creation. His background, ranging from a therapist to a gold diver in Alaska, sets the stage for a story of creativity, problem-solving, and entrepreneurship. The discussion covers a wide array of topics, from the initial inspiration during a challenging transition to remote work during the COVID-19 pandemic to the technical and design challenges faced in developing a unique webcam. Ian’s transition from previous careers to founding a tech startup, the role of user feedback in product evolution, the future vision for webcam technology, and Center Cam’s place in it are all explored in this insightful conversation. Join iLounge as we uncover the story behind Center Cam, a product born out of necessity, innovation, and a deep understanding of human connection in the digital age.
1. What was the initial inspiration behind creating Center Cam, and how did your personal experiences influence its development?
I was finishing up a Master’s level internship as a therapist when Covid hit. The boys I was working with had just gained momentum, and we had to switch to remote. All that momentum got lost in the tech. We were looking all over the place and ended up discontinuing after a couple of sessions. I wondered if the camera was in the middle of the screen and if it would create enough eye contact to simulate the dynamic of an in-person session.
The second part of that question is relevant- as I love building things and spent ten years in a remote part of Alaska building gold-diving boats and diving for gold. Gold-diving is all about creative problem-solving and building things from scratch—a perfect storm of motivation and aptitude. We found the smallest USB-enabled camera that existed, tweaked and modified it, and the Center Cam was born.
2. What were some of the most significant technical challenges you faced while developing Center Cam, and how did you overcome them?
I’m not a technical person naturally, in the sense of great memory for technical specs. I recruited some excellent people on the team who complimented my creativity with the things I could improve at. We partnered with an existing manufacturer for our Version 1 Center Cam, so some of the technical challenges were simply asking for solutions from an existing team and seeing if they could do them. The initial clip was actually some Tony Stark-ish long nights in the garage workshop working with plastics, epoxies, heat guns, and plastic welding techniques to prototype a clip that would deliver the camera to the middle of the screen in a way that was: a) simple, b) very customizable to different use scenarios. All of the time in the workshop led to us knowing really clearly what worked and what didn’t, and it allowed us to have a really clear design when we went to injection molding.
3. Can you describe the design philosophy behind Center Cam? What were the key features you wanted to include?
Deliberately simple. There are 100s of more complex iterations we vetoed in the quest for the simplest solution. We had four constraints: 1- budget, 2- time, 3- availability (what could we pull off based on 1,2), and 4- it had to provide the most amount of customizability to the most amount of foreseeable use scenarios. It needed to move up-down/side to side/out of the way quickly enough that people wouldn’t lose friends or employment opportunities because of a mid-video-conference adjustment.
4. How did user feedback play a role in the development of Center Cam? Can you share any specific changes made based on user input?
The launch process was one of the more precarious limbs I’ve ever found myself perched upon. We were leading the dance. There was no focus group. We were a true crowdfund in that we had an idea and operational prototypes that worked, but we essentially had a concept that we had to imagineer far enough for people to see it and understand immediately if they liked it or not. For Version 2, we now have a TON of data and feedback that we’re using to tweak the clip and some of the chip specs. I read customer support emails. There is a wealth of data there. We built V2 from the PCB up and controlled all the components and their capabilities. The previous camera ran hot, so we developed passive heat syncs to help dissipate heat. The new camera has heat syncs and probably doesn’t need them. It has a better mic. It’s smaller. A fixed-focus lens is simpler for our users. Most of that was based on user feedback.
5. What are the most innovative features of Center Cam that set it apart from traditional webcams?
Our original V1 and our latest V2 are smaller than a dime and operate in the middle of the screen. V2 is 20% smaller than V1. Most traditional webcams are the size of a racquetball or bigger. Other than that, traditional screen-edge webcams need to be in the right place for 90% of use scenarios- ours is the only one that doesn’t sacrifice presentation for the non-verbal things that happen during communication.
6. What technological advancements or features do you hope to integrate into Center Cam?
We’re really excited about V2. It represents a tremendous journey, and we’re proud of what it is and how many people it can help connect! That said, we’re working on a suite of these little webcams to represent the different use scenarios for folks- so I want to keep a 2k, a 4k version, and another version I want to keep off the radar until it’s too late for our competition to catch up. 🙂
7. What inspired you to transition from your previous career to founding a tech startup?
Impact and scale.
I’ve had a few careers, which in and of themselves left me wanting more challenge. But they were also limited in scale and impact. We’ve shipped 35,000 of these now. The scale of what has already been done to improve online connections is remarkable, and we’re grateful to all our customers for catching the vision.
8. What personal and professional challenges have you faced as the founder of a tech company?
I recently read an article about Nvidia founder Jensen Huang in which he said if he’d known what it would take to get Nvidia going, he wouldn’t do it again. And he was saying that more to articulate that it is incredibly difficult to risk everything to see an idea through to fruition in a fickle world where timing and luck can go against you any number of times.
Before starting Center Cam, I had to do a lot of work to become the person who could deal with our adversity and take accountability for all of it. It didn’t come naturally. We had the chip-set/shipping shortages of 2021 in the middle of our crowdfund. We had international IP copy-cats. You learn quickly that social media trolls help your algorithm, and our first two times going viral were made possible because of troll activity.
9. Where do you see the future of webcam technology going, and how do you envision Center Cam playing a role in it?
There are some powerful AI tools that help with eye-gaze correction, but we’re ways out from whole-head correction since screen-edge webcams are in the wrong place as a video input device. Until then, the better the video input, the better you’ll look on a video conference, and Center Cam is the only webcam on the market that is in the right place. There are use scenarios where a screen-edge webcam is relevant, but where human connection matters in video conferences, Center Cam will give you the best look and allow you to conduct your business naturally. We’re leading the way. We created the category of “middle-screen webcam.” Some webcams are, technically, limited by bandwidth and data speeds. Right now, 99% of people are videoconferencing in 720 or 1080. As speeds improve, we’ll get more access to streaming in 2k and then 4k resolution options. But Center Cam will be at the center of that.