Andy Rubin-backed Meeting Owl is a smart 360 camera for the boardroom

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Fresh off the launch of the Essential smartphone and AI-powered Essential Home, Andy Rubin, the co-creator of Google’s Android mobile operating system, is turning his attention to the conference room via an investment in the Somerville, Massachusetts-based Owl Labs. On Wednesday, the firm unveiled the Meeting Owl, a speaker-equipped, 360-degree camera for workplace video meetings.

Meeting Owl isn’t your average 360 camera. Unlike the Samsung Gear 360, the Ricoh Theta S, and other snappers designed to capture VR-optimized headset footage, the Meeting Owl is meant to sit in the center of a conference table and zoom in on participants on the fly. The 11-inch tall, 2.6-pound domed speaker uses Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 410 processor, a 720p HD camera with a fisheye lens, an eight-microphone array, and built-in speakers to shift focus between speakers’ faces. It’s compatible with teleconferencing apps like Skype, Hangouts, and Zoom, and plugs into a computer or monitor via USB.

The idea is to make remote meetings feel more natural — and less of a chore. Unlike most teleconferencing solutions, which require an operator to manually turn cameras during meetings, the Meeting Owl is completely hands-free.

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In a demo video released this week, the Meeting Owl shows a zoomed-out, panoramic view four people in a conference room. When someone begins speaking, it zooms in, then automatically creates a split view when a second person chimes in.

Mark Schnittman, an Owl Labs co-founder, told The Verge that the Meeting Owl was inspired by “persistent problem[s]” with conference rooms and workspaces. “When I was my colleagues rotate the [videoconferencing] camera as opposed to robotics doing it, I knew I could make it happen robotically.”

“I’ve heard stories of people bringing a Lazy Susan to work to get their cameras to rotate,” Max Makeev, another co-founder and chief executive officer of Owl Labs, told The Verge. “And, there are lots of remote-controlled cameras for meeting rooms, but we found that people have the desire to steer the camera but not the will do it.”

Makeev thinks the Meeting Owl will strike a nerve in a workplace that’s increasingly split between the office and home. According to a Gallup poll released in February of this year, 43 percent of American workers said they spend some of their time working remotely in 2016, up 4 percent from 2012.

Rubin, an early Meeting Owl investor, pegs the potential market for the Meeting Owl at “hundreds of dollars.”

Owl Labs isn’t a fly-by-night operation. It’s backed by Rubin’s Palo Alto, California-based Playground Global venture firm and veteran executives from iRobot, and counts more than 20 employees among its growing team. Since its founding in 2015, it’s raised $7.3 million.

And it already has its eyes set on the future. Eventually, Owl Labs plans to launch a mobile app that enables remote control of the camera, and new smart meeting analytics software that will let employees know if meeting rooms are available based on nearby activity.

“We’ll push software updates to deliver that value,” Schnittman told The Verge. “Maybe people really want an Alexa in their meeting room. Maybe we’ll tap into APIs. But we really want that user feedback.”

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