The age of machines that can see is upon us and a group of Kiwi companies is joining forces to stay ahead of the game.
From smart appliances to intelligent personal assistants and automated vehicles, we are about to inhabit a world where nearly all inanimate objects can see.
Cheaper cameras and more powerful processors are enabling an explosion of computer vision technology. It’s no longer just about creating memories – while ‘camera’ means a smart phone or a traditional point-and-shoot to most people today, within five years the majority of the world’s lenses will be inside smart homes, robots, security systems and myriad other devices.
The projected growth of the visual technology industry is astounding. A report by US early stage venture fund LDV Capital, which specialises in the sector, says the number of cameras in the world is set to grow from the current 14 billion to over 45 billion by 2022.
Kiwis may be surprised to learn that New Zealand has a small but neatly formed computer vision industry of its own. Giving machines eyes and training them to make intelligent decisions based on the information they absorb is the next technological wave sweeping the globe, and a clutch of local businesses is at the forefront of it.
With the help of Callaghan Innovation and New Zealand Trade and Enterprise, these firms are now organising themselves into an industry cluster to leverage their collective knowledge and experience.
Companies such as video platform designer Teknique, innovation studio Rush Digital, and 3D vision innovators Chronoptics see the potential to expand their business by sharing technology and market intelligence.
These players say the question is not, ‘why New Zealand?’, but, ‘why not?’.
Coffee and cross-pollination
Teknique Director Ben Bodley is a driving force behind the new camera working group. While he had been aware of some of his fellow business owners, he hadn’t had much to do with them until now, he says.
“The tyranny of distance applies even across the Auckland Harbour Bridge. It’s just a mentality Kiwis have, they tend to spend a lot of time in the shed.
“This is an opportunity to realise there are some real synergies. It’s leading to conversations and coffees about how we can share knowledge - some of it’s technical and some of it is sales and business-related. It’s just so valuable.”
Since he founded Albany-based Teknique with his brother 14 years ago, the company has grown to the point where over 90 per cent of its customers are in America. To better service those clients it’s about to open a new US office. As the technology has evolved Teknique has become more of an artificial intelligence company than a camera business, with many of its solutions created for the smart home market, Ben says.
No one country or territory will have a unique advantage in the application of computer vision technology, he says.
“It’s like being involved in writing mobile apps – it’s not like there’s going to be any one winner, every country will be applying this technology in their own unique way.
“It’s all about educating and staying current, and New Zealand needs to be at the front riding the wave.” Applying the technology in the agricultural sector, such as in fruit sorting and yield prediction, will be particularly important if this country is to retain its premium place in the food production market, Ben says.
‘Re-engineering the lines between reality and digital’ is how Rush Digital describes its capabilities.
It may be better known for innovation, gaming and virtual reality, but the company has made no secret of its interest in computer vision, Chief Technical Officer Danu Abeysuriya says.
The working group is a significant initiative, because it is a technically challenging area and a global opportunity, he says.
“It makes sense for a high-skill, high barrier to entry technology like camera systems and vision systems to have information-sharing, particularly when we’re not direct competitors.
“The rising tide lifts all boats. If you look at the film industry, that’s an area where creative collaboration is absolutely crucial, and New Zealand has managed to flourish there because we have such a tight network.”
Arturas Vedrickas, VP product management for Teknique, tries out a self-flying camera on the beach. This is an example of the technology now emerging which uses 'computer vision' to understand what its subject is doing and anticipate their next move.
Using technology spun out of the University of Waikato, Chronoptics delivers solutions that allow electronic devices to experience the world in 3D. Co-founder Adrian Dorrington says there is a wide span of activity in the New Zealand computer vision sector, and any overlap is beneficial rather than competitive.
Chronoptics will gain both technical and commercial advantages from being part of the cluster, he says.
“We’ve been talking to Ben and the guys at Teknique about using some of their technology alongside ours.
“Also from a business development perspective, we can get to know people who are doing similar things to us or have done things we’re about to, because we’re a young company.”
Callaghan Innovation has been encouraging the camera industry to form a cluster for a couple of years, Business Innovation Adviser Nathan Stantiall says. “It’s now time to do it. Camera and computer vision technology is growing exponentially, and, with the support of agencies such as Callaghan Innovation, the New Zealand industry is acknowledging its significant part in it.
“The real power will come when common challenges and opportunities are identified and approached as a collective,” he says.
Chris Burgess, Customer Manager at New Zealand Trade and Enterprise, says the agency encourages cross-collaboration between exporters where it can. “We know that when complementary companies get together, the richness of what they can share is compelling.”
Updated: 29 November 2018