How We Made and Sold Hardware In India - Tesseract Imaging

How We Made and Sold Hardware In India

Part I: The Beginning

It was a rainy October evening in Mumbai. I had just finished my hang over for the MIT Media Lab Design Innovation Workshops. Innovation, Innovation, Innovation that was the mantra for me when I moved to India in 2013. I was thinking “Innovation bohot ho gaya”, fundae bohot maar liye. Its time to walk the talk. Its time to create something out of India, to set an example, create a product, albeit a hardware product.

I had been thinking about a product for a long time now. A camera, new kind of camera, not for 2D photographs but for Virtual Reality (VR). A camera that can help us create movies, photos and content in 360, in 3D and for Virtual Reality (VR). With VR head-sets like Oculus and Google Cardboard out, this will be a camera that can capture real content for it. Just take a photograph or a video with this camera and see it over an Oculus you will feel like you are right there inside the scene.

So we started out – we thought lets take it step by step. Lets first create a camera to capture 360 Virtual Reality photographs and walkthroughs. And the same camera can then also be used to create indoor and outdoor 3D maps. So before hitting the consumer market with our VR Video Camera we thought lets make a camera for 360/3D VR photos and walkthroughs.

Hardware is Hard, in India its even Harder!

Sanjay had just left his job at Nvidia. Wait a minute, I didn’t tell who Sanjay is. So, Sanjay is my batchmate from college. One of the most honest, straight guys I have met. Hardware guru, from System on Chips to USB Interfaces, just think of the most complicated name and he would know it.

So we set out, me, Sanjay and Shiveesh. A brief about Shiveesh – the film maniac, Hollywood is his cradle, Nolan the God. He was part of our MIT Hyderabad workshop. A techie who hates technology, but loves Design.

The first iteration we tried was a fluff ball. I had come to Bangalore to meet with Sanjay. Riding on his Avenger we went to a long trip from Banaswadi to SP road (ass still hurts thinking about that trip). Our thought was to just put 6 cameras along the surface of the sphere and be done with it.

In terms of name, we thought lets think Organic Chemistry the lone subject that used to crap the shit out of us while preparing for IIT. What is compound that has 6 atoms – Benzene, voila! Here is the name, Benzene – the geekiness in us can never go away.

So we tried Hoopla rings, plastic balls, bigger plastic balls, the camera would just not fit in. And if it fitted it would never be stable. The jugaad was not working.

When in doubt, just 3D print.

Shiveesh took charge to design. On his 90s odl laptop, he installed the behemoth of CAD – the Autodesk Inventor.

We printed a 360 6 camera ring. Bought 6 web-cams and just stuck it in. 6 USB cams means we needed a 6 in 1 USB hub. So we got that, and plugged it to our laptops. Plan was to fire one camera after the other save the images, stitch them, blend them together and done.

That 1 design got changed into 4 more designs. 6 camera ring, then 5 camera design, 1 for the top view and 4 horizontally. We thought we will call it Propane. Then 4 camera design, 4 on the same plane and then 1 on top and 3 on the same plane. Guess what we called this design – you are right – Methane.

Shiveesh kept churning out new designs, our UP mini 3D printer kept printing them, we kept assembling them. This went on for a month or so. And finally we narrowed down on our 4 cam design – and called it Methane.

Our 4 cameras were know placed like a Carbon, Hydrogen bond. 1 looking for top, and 3 planar. We connected all to a laptop and wrote the code (while the right term is borrowed open source libraries and modified :P) for stitching, blending and creating the 360 VR Images. Shiveesh used to hold the camera, Sanjay the laptop and I used press “Enter” to start the capture.

Finally, we got the first 360 VR Image out of this setup. Elation!!!

There was just minor problem – the setup did require 3 people to operate. We thought how an earth are we going to sell this.

We had to make this portable, do computation on-the camera – so needed a processor and a battery. Make something for the modern human race.

So we called Ayush – the analog, the digital, the electronics man. He was part of our MIT Hyderabad workshop too, angry young man who wanted to make a mark on the electronics world. He had been working with LV Prasad and applying for his MS in the USA.

We flew him from Hyderabad to Mumbai - him and of course his suitcase. You should just check out that guys luggage – less clothes and more oscilloscopes, soldering irons, any analog/digital chip you can think of and of course his pocket projector.

Cameras are the most draconian of sensors. Gyro, Accel, IMU, Piezos everything will eventually work but cameras...man

So we got down to task – to make the camera smaller and portable. The 4 camera design was finally fixed – the processing had to be done inside the camera and battery had to be fitted in.

Shiveesh designed one more casing, our UP mini printed one more. We took our good old friend Raspberry Pi, connected it to the battery, soldered the 4 cameras through a USB hub, Ayush added the mini-USB charging port and within a week it was ready.

Technically our first prototype that could potentially be taken into a product form. Excitement knew no bounds. Now we could demo the product. We could show the world what was possible.

The joy of creation is better than most things... including sex! Well, may be not! But its right up there!

Part II: Order, Chaos and Order again

So we did, went to some of the largest players in India – demoed the product - showed 360 – showed Virtual Reality with the Oculus – this was exciting. People were interested, they loved the experience but at the same time very skeptical. They had never seen a hardware product like this. Let alone seeing it coming from India. Some mentioned India can never make a hardware product, some felt we will go bankrupt and few explained to us how this has never happened in last 5 years and will not happen in the next 5. Its funny how awesome is this feeling of being the underdog, all this made us even more determined to convert our prototype into a full blown product and start shipping this thing in 6 months.

If it took you x time to make a working prototype, it will take you atleast 10x time to get into a product, 5x if you don’t have weekends off and work 20 hours a day.

January dawned on us, it was the time for the 5th MIT Media Lab Design Innovation Workshop. Every year starting from 2011 we have been doing these workshops in India bringing together students and corporates from different fields like design, technology, art, engineering and creating some crazy prototypes in 7 days. From Smart Textiles to Sensors, from Civic Innovation to Immersive Storytelling we had a lot of themes to invent the future for. This time we planned to do it in Ahmedabad – the city of our PM Modi. With Made In India preached all round we felt this could add impetus to the movement.

Team at Tesseract under Sanjay’s leadership kept on removing kinks in the prototype as the MIT workshop was happening.

After a mini break, we came back to take the product from prototype to a sellable form. Well atleast that’s what I thought.

The hardest thing in a technology company is not to create the technology... its managing people

Ayush wanted to get his MS sorted hence decided to leave. Sanjay and I had a serious conversation on how on earth are we ever going to ship the product in time to our clients in less than 4 months. Even software products are shipped with bigger timelines. Of course we couldn’t give them a 3D printed product. No matter how innovative the technology is aesthetics and design our equally important. Disagreements followed and after many intense on-the roof top conversation the call was taken.

I didn’t understand – but Sanjay had benefit of foresight. He could see that the product had completely consumed us, our friendship was getting seriously affected.

Given a choice between relationships and business, always, i mean always chose relationships.

That was a blow – a big blow. The company lost 2 of the most important individuals. The task felt impossible to accomplish. We had given assurances to our clients.

In came Varun – maverick designer, maker, doer, words are less to describe him. He was part of our MIT Mumbai workshop in Pragun’s track. Made his own 3D printer from scratch, used to work in Siemens but left it. He first started hanging around at our office – experimenting with crazy ideas. He started printing Tesseract logos, making automatic plotters, the guy loved his printers – I mean 3D printers. It was as if he was married to manufacturing and having an extra-marital with industrial design with a bit of hardware. It was really refreshing to see somebody with such passion, precision and power of the field he cared so deeply about.

I started making calls left, right and center. We needed hardware guys, we needed system software guys, we needed Android guys, Web guys – well the list was long.

So Dolly started going through our workshop network finding guys who would fit in. Again, I don’t think you know who Dolly is. One of the most hardworking girls I have met – she handled all operations and new avenues for the MIT workshops in Mumbai and Ahmedabad. After the Ahmedabad workshop, we inspired her (more like forced her) to join Tesseract and make a physical product. One should learn how to handle people from her. With such calm and composure she handles the toughest of situations. Be it supply chain, logistics, accounting, finance, packaging or business modeling she is the one-stop person for us.

She contacted possibly all folks that existed in college, outside college, in company, outside company wherever you are, whoever you are if you are good and have the courage to do impossible things we wanted you.

We badly needed to have a kick-ass mobile app. Shiveesh was there, I was here, Varun was here, lets get Android and Web dev done. I called Rahul – our Mumbai workshop participant from IIIT Allahbad:

  • Me: “Bhai, ek Android ka stud banda chahiye hai koi”
  • Rahul: “Haan ek hai college mai Gaurav. Vo jo aapne app dee thee GPS vale pehle banana ke liye, vo asal mai usne hee bananyee thee”
  • Me: “Accha bade jaldee bata diya. Mumbai aayega, web-site nahee hai, hardware product hai remotely nee hoga”
  • Rahul: “Haan sir, abhee call karke batata hoo”

After one hour:

  • Rahul: “Sir, vo maan gaya hai aap use baat karlo”

So I call Gaurav:

  • Me: “Bhai gaurav, ek App banana hai bana lega”
  • Gaurav: “Haan sir, ho jaayega”
  • Me: “Accha badiya hai, Mumbai aana padega aayega”
  • Gaurav: “Haan sir, aa jaaonga”

We booked his tickets for next week. There was no flight from Allahbad so we booked it from Banaras.

That morning Gaurav woke up early, took a bus from Allahbad to Banaras, then waited for a couple of hours before taking a flight from Banaras to Mumbai, and then finally an auto from the Airport to our office.

Rugged, raw Haryanvi from Ambala. Any body would mistake him for a humble gunda. Unassuming but extremely confident. I asked him do you want water, rest karna hai. He was like “Nahi, sir kaam karte hai”.

And this guy had just traveled 6 hours in bus, 2 hours in flight and 1 hour in auto to reach. I thought this is India for you. We keep looking westwards for perseverance for talent, for high technology and design. This is Gaurav, the young India – ready to take on the world.

So we began developing our mobile application.

We needed 360 viewer, we needed to create automatic 3D floor plans, Virtual Reality views and all needed to work seamlessly on the web and android.

One slight problem, we didn’t have the product. We had dismantled our previous design, so we made one proto again this time with a Tupperware box.

When nothing works, Jugaad works.

Meanwhile, we had a major technical problem with our designs. Parallax errors. Let me be a bit technical here, since our cameras were spaced apart there was parallax. And no matter whatever software we wrote that couldn’t be corrected for. It used to lead weird artifacts on the 360 VR images – as if the wall or the table is broken. It would have been not noticeable for consumer video but not so well for images.

The second problem was calibration. As any camera developer will tell you cameras need to be calibrated, and multiple camera designs need to be calibrated even further.


Part III : The Case of The “Ulta Tripod”

Well to solve the calibration problem we had to create a room where the camera can see many patterns pasted on the wall. Now that meant, putting every pattern on the ceiling. Well that was a difficult task. So we thought what is the next best alternative.

Why don’t we put the camera on the ceiling and rest of the patterns on the floor? Voila, that could be done, well so we did. We got the “Seedee”. Shiveesh, Varun and I climbed up. Dolly gave us moral support and of course shot the image that you are seeing here. We somehow managed to get a tripod in the middle of the ceiling with patterns on the floor. The calibration room was setup and the problem was solved.

Now, we needed machine learning and computer vision experts to solve the parallax problem. One more call went to Mayank – the super talkative Delhi guy in our Ahmedabad workshop. 2 colleges who have done some great work and produced some great talent in CV and ML are BITS-Goa and IIIT Hyderabad. Mayank was from BITS-Goa – he was assigned to anyhow find guys in vision and learning.

After a lot of failed cases he found 2: Abhishek Annamaraju – a very hardworking south indian but from Nagpur and Akash Deep Singh – the fun loving Lucknowi-Nawab from Allahbad. This was a package deal. Both had to come from Goa. So we booked them an early morning flight and got them here.


Part IV: Design, Design, Design, It Just Never Ends

Last time it was finding the least number of cameras, this time it was making sure there is no parallax errors.

So with Varun and Akash and our SMPS power supply, DC motors and Tupperware design we went ahead doing more design iterations.

From 4 cam to 3 cam to 2 cam to 1 cam. We tried every damn thing.

Jiska koi nahee hota uska Google hota hai.

We finally figured out our answer ofcourse from Google. It had to be 1 cam design rotating on a particular axis to remove any parallax error.

Once we figured the product design out, we moved to the next draconian thing in any portable product - Battery.


Part V: Battery Blues

Sony invented the Li-on batteries, they are in use in most of our daily products be it cell phone or portable music players or laptops but man are they a pain to work with.

Here enter Saboor and Yathart. Saboor, a recent BITS Hyderabad graduate was given the task to master the red bull called Battery. Saboor was a part of our MIT workshop in Hyderabad – really hardworking and passionate. Technically we had decided to work on his bachelor thesis together but of course that never happened.

Just get the damn charging and discharging cycles, the constant current variable voltage and variable current constant voltage thing figured out. We must have blown up 5 battery packs in trying to get the right charging cycle. Saboor worked day and night on it. I even slept with the product once to see how many 360 VR photos it will take in 8 hours of my sleep.

I was concerned we might end up blowing up these batteries. One of us might not survive this ordeal. In our first iteration they used to work fine for the first few days give exceptional performance and then suddenly die out.

Yatharth on the other hand was given the task to design and layout the PCB for our hardware. A IIIT Allahbad graduate again he was to master tools such as DipTrace, Eagle and get our hardware design done. To make sure from the ADCs to the motor drivers, from the status indicators to battery charging everything is in place before we give it for manufacturing.

Design and Technology are inextricably linked. So linked that you fix one the other fucks up.

Nevertheless, the team felt complete. We had Hardware Engineers, Software Engineers, Graphic Designers and Product Architects. Finally, I got my Matrix moment. I believed, the team believed, we all believed, now we can really “Make It In India”.

So we got on it. Isolating one problem after the other. After a month of testing battery and charging circuits we finally cracked it. Battery was set and so was the charging circuit, 200 360 VR shots in a single day, not bad. Saboor had solved it.

Mobile application was done – Gaurav had single handedly pulled it off bleeding-edge development and Shiveesh had pulled off a beautiful design. With a few iterations from basic engineering driven app to a well-design application that works flawlessly.


Part VI: Inching Towards Finality

The one cam design stuck. We worked really hard to speed things up. From mapping the pixels to shared memory to writing each line of code from scratch, we finally improved on the code base from 4 minutes to capture a single 360 VR image we got it down to 1 minute.

Finally, after a bit of searching we found printed circuit board fabricators in Mumbai who would manufacture the board for us with a turn round time of less than 3 days. As with any hardware, we had our challenges. Hardware debugging takes time, its not like software where a bug can be fixed without refabricating. If anything goes wrong in hardware, then whole board needs to be fabricated again unless it’s a known driver or OS bug.

The timeline we worked out was good enough for us to prototype, build test and re-engineer our hardware design with reasonable speed.

We were having fun, working 20 hours a day, no weekends. Playing cricket in the evening and getting back to work soon enough. Counter Strike was a regular so was Coke, crooning to Coldplay and Arijit Singh. Best days of our lives!

Be it hardware or software, just fail fast and iterate as quick as possible!

Over the summer starting from May, Jaivardhan Singh Channey – the name is as long as how tall he is – joined us. Srishti graduate, he became our creative lead. Getting the story out, create the awesome looking videos you see on the web-site and of course being the foody he is – try out the great cuisines of Mumbai. With his camera gear and the 50 mm lens he worked tirelessly, traveling all around our manufacturing facilities.

Recording every bit of content. Getting Adobe Premiere to work on his legacy laptop, rendering, editing and coming up with fantastic stories. The video you saw at the top is the combination of Jai’s fantastic videography and Shiveesh’s impeccable editing.

Anurag and Rishabh from Ahmedabad joined us for helping out in the battery technology and the android application respectively.


Part VII: The Last Leg

We wanted to give the product a premium look. Varun took charge - this was his territory. He and I discussed to go with an Anodized Aluminium finish. Black and Red would be the colors for the product. Matte finish black and red rings. Next step was to find a CNC guy who can mill this for us. Ironically there was a Industrial park just behind our office. We explored and finally found our guys. Generally these guys do bigger orders, focused on creating metal casts but somehow they got excited on our product. Varun’s impeccable knowledge of manufacturing and of course his Gujarati roots helped here.

One of the good things we did in the design was to make sure it can be manufactured relatively easily. Kudos to Varun for it who made sure the design was not something that might have taken months to modify for a manufacturing process to get to form. With some clever change of processes and tweaks we were ready to take a slab of aluminum and convert it to our product.

At the same time we searched for getting our hardware design fabricated. Close to the industrial area in Marol, we found our answer. Its actually a fantastic area for hardware startups – you will find every kind of fabricator – from CNC to laser etchers, from PCB to molding guys. We found our fabrication guys – man everything is happening in India – we just need to open our eyes and explore.

In about a month we got our first CNC ed product. The feel of metal is just really cool. From the silver aluminum we went through an anodized process converting it into our black matte finish.

Powering the camera for all the computations we put a dual-core 1 GHz processor with 1 GB RAM. All-Winner helped our way combined with custom hardware for battery management, battery monitoring, motor drivers and status indicators.

With all the components in place we started assembly and subsequent shipping of our product.


Part VIII : The Dharavi Package

Packaging is the last most important thing in a product. There are legendary stories on how apple spends so much money in getting the right packagng for its iphones and macs. Well we are not apple in terms of scale and resources. But we thought how can we get great packaging done. A premium finish would add to the feel of the product and of course a cheap cost will help.

We had tried a hardboard packaging before but was just not robust enough to stand the rough use of product.

Varun and Dolly took us to Dharavi. Through Varun's uncle we got connected to packaging folks there. And, for all who know Dolly, she loves Dharavi. Somehow all her projects get linked to that place be it with us at Tesseract or at Qyuki. I never expected this but there are leather industries thriving in that area of Mumbai. Not only leather hardboard packaging, injection molding, creating consumer goods – just think of artifacts around you. All of them would have a bit of Dharavi in them. Its really amazing how much stuff they produce out of that locality in Mumbai. Statistically, there are about 1 million people working there producting $1 Billion worth of goods every year

We finally got our boxes done there – relatively cheap cost and the leather finish was impeccable. Plus the gold emboss of Tesseract and Made In India. Dolly finished the manual and the Quick start guide, Jai made it looked beautiful. Overall the whole product felt amazing!


Part IX: The Shipment

Finally the day was getting closer. The day when we would ship to our first client. The product was becoming a truly Made In India masterpiece. This was high technology, sophisticated optical design combined with high end processing. Computer vision and machine learning algorithms running at full flow and giving a visual experience never seen before. The aluminium finish and Varuns design were absolutely delightful. Battery was working, so was the hardware.

Who said India is about service and software. Here was a hardware product that was made by India, of India and for the world!

The time to ship was close. Finally we assembled the whole product, calibrated the cameras for future use and went into Q and A testing.

As we were testing, one last hitch caught up. Somehow the Wi Fi hotspot on the camera was transmitting reduced signal. Almost half the strength. That would be a pain in creating indoor maps. Meanwhile, Mayank had joined us from Delhi. Part of our MIT Ahmedabad workshop he is the guru of RFs and WiFi. He was working on your second generation of hardware and of course trying to figure how can we get maximum range. We just realized that we have the iPhone Antenna moment. If you remember, back in 2011 there was a problem in receiving signals in the iPhone 4. That was because the whole body was made out of aluminum that technically absorbs WiFi hence the reduced signal. The way Apple fixed it was to make the whole body the antenna. So did we, getting the Antenna out and in the subsequent versions converting the whole body into the antenna.

Finally we shipped. Can’t forget that day. We packed our boxes, Mayank supervised the customary photoshoot and went into clients office. With our products in the hands we walked in, shaked hands. Gave the required demo and finally handed them the products.

I suddenly realized the product was not ours any more. All the hardwork, the days, the nights that had gone into it just flashed through my head. Now the product would be owned by somebody else. Felt like giving your baby away. For once I wanted to take it back. That’s how attached you feel with you build. But, true love is letting go rather than holding on. Now, it was with the world. To play with out, to use it, one more tool invented by man to make the world a better place for the rest.


Part X: The Why and the Why not?

When we started, we didn’t know if this was possible or not. None of the team came with whatever 10+ years of experience. If I had gone with this idea to a VC or an investor nobody would have believed we can pull this off. There were not enough data points to project success. But that’s the funny thing about innovation, collaboration and creativity. It comes out of chaos. It comes out of attempting the impossible. Something that has not been done before. Creating something new, making something unique, battling all odds, overcoming challenges and making an impact.

6 months of effort – that’s what it took to get a rockstar team, make an end to end product and ship it. Till date we have not raised a single penny of external or VC funding – completely bootstrapped. I am very proud of this team. I am very proud of what we have been able to accomplish. Its still a small step in the bigger scheme of things but a very important one. Even if we were not able to pull this off I would have felt the same. Because what mattered was the experience that all of us went through. The learnings, the joys, the sadness, the fun, the games, the frustrating hardware debugging, the draining integration, the fights, the shouting, the failures, the successes, I can just go on and on. But as Nehru said we still have miles to go before we sleep, miles to go before we sleep.

The end goal never matters, what always matters is the journey.

Couple of lines to end this blog.

Hum chale the manzil ke aur humsafar ko saath lekar, kee raasta aasaan ho jaayega,
Manzil to humai mil naa paaye par humsafar hee raah ban gaye