Tom Lawton is one of those guys that you expect to see on Dragon’s Den. Son of a Westfield helicopter engineer, never allowed a new bike so had to make them as a kid, re-mortgaged to the hilt to create that one idea, he’s been building stuff all his life.
If you going to slap an inventor label on someone, this is your guy.
His first major invention was an alarm clock, called WakeYoo, that allowed you to record your own wake up message. Sounds boring now, but he created it in 2000. That’s before the launch of the iPod and before solid state storage had really taken off (MP3 makers at the time were Rio and Creative).
It sold 250,000 units and paid the way for Lawton to create other ideas. Amongst other things came a bread bin that featured a chopping board, and a wind powered garden light called the firewinder in 2008.
But all that time Lawton had another project that planned to change the way we take photographs in the future.
First conceived in 2001, Bubblescope is a project that Lawton has been working on for the last decade.
“Life never gets better than this bubble right here,” Lawton explains to Pocket-lint about the how he came to thing of the idea as we take a stroll around Ascot to show off his invention. Dressed as you might expect an inventor to look, he has got a bag of prototypes, a big project book, and a rather bright red watch. It might sound like we are stereotyping here, but he fits the bill.
The concept is a new type of camera that can take a 360-degree photo in one go without the photographer having to do any image stitching later. That might not sound like a revelation but this is something Lawton came up with 10 years ago; before both digital cameras and smartphones had got anywhere near the big time.
Explaining that everyone’s had that ‘a photograph wouldn't do this scene justice moment’, Bubblescope hopes to change all that.
“It wasn’t originally designed for phones,” Lawton tells us.
He has the final prototypes (which he has brought with him to show us) of a handheld camera to prove it. Originally due to go to sale in the UK in 2006, the product was sadly pulled at the 11th hour and the project cancelled after the “Far East manufacturer” got scared.
“It was awful, we were ready to go and then it was like the rug being pulled from beneath us. Hindsight tells me though that it was good in that we waited.”
Lawton wouldn’t give up though, pulling his resources together, doing others jobs to raise capital (like the Firewinder for example) and switching from a dedicated all-in-one device to an accessory for camera phones - namely the iPhone. Lawton, it seemed, just couldn’t put Bubblescope down.
“Back then people didn't understand what we were trying to do. It’s a lot easier now, I just tell them it's like Google Street View for your iPhone.”
Lawton tells us that one of the benefits of designing for a smartphone is that, no matter who makes it, the designs are pretty much standardised.
“When Nokia ruled the roost, its phones were different shapes and different sizes and it’s hard to create something for a range of devices like that. Now, however, most smartphones are the same. The camera is in the same place on the back and designing a case for them is a lot easier.”
So Bubblescope went from a dedicated camera in its own right to an accessory that bolts on to the back of your phone when it comes to taking pictures.
The concept is as simple as it is clever. At first glance, the accessory looks like a microphone that attaches to the back of your phone. It has a pop up curved mirror that captures everything around it and then sends it down toward the camera on the back of the phone.
Using a dedicated app the image is processed in the phone in real time allowing you to see what’s happening around you the moment you press the shutter button.
The app, which will be free, gives you a real time preview of what you are seeing, as well as letting you record video; after all, the Bubblescope really is just some mirrors cleverly aligned. The camera’s power comes from within your phone.
Images, called Bubblepix, are then uploaded to a dedicated website for you to share those images with friends or embedded them in websites around the world.
Of course the idea of 360-degree images aren’t new. On the professional side of things a Dutch company called Yellowbird has been trailblazing the way at festivals giving you a very immersive festival experience from within the crowd. Likewise Sony launched the Bloggie 360 in January 2011 that allows users to capture 360 images.
Lawton has praise for Yellowbird, but not so much for Sony.
“There are lots of problems with the Bloggie 360,” he tells us. “You’ve got that plastic cover over the mirror that can easily be scratched, it only works on one dedicated device and the viewing angle isn’t that great; it’s something like 40-degrees compared to our 120-degrees vertical.”
Attachment on, and our inventor is snapping a picture of us standing on Ascot heath in the middle of royal racecourse. Within seconds we’ve not only captured the the track and grandstand but everything around us. We even do a little video (it does have sound, but Lawton tells us that they are having trouble with the sound for our demo on the embed). It’s very clever, but why would you want to create a 360 degree 120 degree viewing angle picture?
“It’s all about that bubble,” Lawton insists.
That bubble isn’t just about a group of mates standing in a circle. Lawton has future plans for Bubblescope beyond making it smaller and cheaper or available for more phones besides the iPhone. Those include features that will woo surveyors, architects and estate agents.
“Future possibilities include being able to measure the distance of objects within the bubble because we know the angles with which we are shooting it.”
The idea is that you’ll walk into a room, press a button and be able to tell how far away a door is, how high the ceiling, or an array of other details. Expect your estate agent to want one of this when they launch in September.
We leave Ascot racecourse and head back to grab a coffee and see the results on a computer screen (you can see them on the iPhone as well but it’s very sunny).
It’s here we question Lawton on the real reason for wanting to create such a device and the real truth starts to come out.
He tells us of the fall of Baghdad and how the famous image of the pulling down of Sadam Hussein’s statue symbolised the end of the war – a war that raged on for years after that day.
“It was pure propaganda. The press were one side, the army the other, but there was a greater story to tell. Something that couldn’t be told because you would have had to stitch images together.”
Lawton suggests that, had photographers had something like the Bubblescope to hand, they could have quickly created a 360-degree image that told no lies.
It seems that for Lawton this £50 gadget is not just about its users having fun, but creating a way for people to capture life in a different, more truthful way.
Coffee’s finished we walk Lawton back to his car. It’s a rather shabby Peugeot, and the message comes home. This is a guy that really does believe in what he is creating and invested everything to make that dream a reality.
Will he succeed? We hope so. The Bubblescope is a fun accessory that like other developments in the camera world will bring a new take on how we take pictures in the future allowing us to enjoy the bubble’s we find ourselves in every day.