Zak Niazi of Circle Optics

An exclusive Tech Tribune Q&A with Zak Niazi, the founder and CEO of Circle Optics, which was honored in our:
Tell us the origin story of Circle Optics – what problem were you trying to solve and why?

I was trying to figure out how to enhance Google Streetview’s capabilities. An advisor of mine in college worked on the initial 360 cameras for Google Streetview. I asked him why, if they have cameras on people, cars, and robots around the planet, can I not put on a virtual reality headset and walk the length of the Great Wall of China right now? Or roam the streets of Venice, Italy, seeing gondolas going by me in 60 frames per second? He explained to me that the reason Google only shows one photo at a time, and not continuous video, is because of “parallax”, a defect whereby cameras positioned at different angles see the world from different perspectives.

For example, your two eyes are a subset of a 360 degree camera. Hold out two fingers in front of you, and notice how when you close one eye and then the other, your fingers jump to different places relative to the background. Processing the parallax out of 360 degree video requires a person spending 5+ hours of time for every minute of content. The entire medium is not scaleable. For that reason, Google Streetview cannot offer walking tours of cities around the world. Being an avid world traveler, I wanted to solve that problem. I want to help make the world available and accessible to everyone virtually, not just people who can afford the plane ticket.

What was the biggest hurdle you encountered in your journey?

The biggest hurdle was getting an initial prototype that solved the issue of parallax. As I would later learn in my quest, a solution to the problem of parallax has been attempted by many of the top electronics and camera companies, including GoPro, Qualcomm, and many others. Clearly, people were aware of the issue. After about a year of thinking about the problem, I came up with a solution that on paper looked extremely simple and seemed to solve it.

The basic idea was to design polygonal lenses (in contrast to all lenses you see in cameras today, which are circular) and engineer the fields of view of each lens to be polygonal as well. It seemed so simple, I could draw it out and explain it to my 5 year old niece. The next big hurdle was having the guts to go out and raise $100,000, mainly from friends and family, to build a prototype. That was extremely scary, because I was spending other people’s money, and the solution seemed too simple to be real. I felt that if the solution really was that simple, surely another big company would have figured it out. To my surprise, after raising the money and building the prototype, it actually worked.

What does the future hold for Circle Optics?

We are dedicated to making the world available and accessible to everyone. We are working now to go from a prototype and lab-based model to a product that people can use in the field. We are starting with the virtual reality market because content creators there have the biggest need for this technology. To produce a 360 degree film, they spends thousands of dollars per minute on stitching to solve the issue of parallax. They are constantly afraid of the trade-off between the creativity of the scene they capture, and the price they will have to pay later on stitching everything together. We eliminate that trade-off, allowing them to no longer sacrifice creativity for cost. Our V1 product will hit the market Q2 of 2021. Beyond that, we are dedicated to creating immersive experiences, including virtual tours of remote cities around the planet. We hope to help augment Google Streetview in the future. In fact, the inventor of Streetview has joined our team as an advisor to help steer us towards these long term aspirations.

What are your thoughts on the local tech startup scene in Rochester?

I think it is still pretty young – the majority of businesses in Rochester are larger corporations like Kodak, Xerox, and L3 Harris. But my largest surprise has been the supply of talent in this area, and the desire from people to work on really cool technology. When you consider how cheap living costs and office space is here, and the quality of talent (for optics and mechanics far exceeding anywhere else on the planet), I think this is the perfect environment to start a startup. In an environment like San Francisco, there is constant competition for talent. Here, there aren’t that many cool new tech startups yet, so you’ll be able to form an extraordinary team, just like we have. I don’t think this will exist forever – I believe tech companies will catch on to how amazing this ecosystem is here, and you will see a huge boom of tech startups in Rochester a decade from now.

What’s your best advice for aspiring entrepreneurs?

There are so many valuable pieces of advice you probably hear time and again, like have persistence/never give up and augment yourself with people around you that think differently than you and fill in your weaknesses. Those are all important. A topic probably talked about less often is work/life balance and general emotional health. So the top piece of advice I would offer aspiring entrepreneurs is that there is no top of the mountain. Constantly in life, and especially us entrepreneurs, we can tend to live moment to moment thinking about the grand vision and the big picture.

One day, I will help enable that child to put on a headset and explore the streets of Venice at night with her friend. When that day exists, I will be happy. That’s false. Yes, have a dream. And keep working at it until you make it happen. But life is a rollercoaster of ups and downs, and you need to learn to value the journey and every step up the mountain, just as much as you value your brief momentary glimpse from the top. It’s a fool’s bargain to trade the 10,000 moments of the journey for the one moment at the destination. So yes, have dreams, aspire big things, and change the world. But just realize at a deep level that every moment is fundamentally equal to the next. And walk through your journey with that state of mind. Smell the flowers along the way.


For more exclusive interviews, see our full Profile of a Founder series

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *