Until the pandemic, I gave very little thought to webcams.
I tolerated the dinky one that came on my laptop. And for desktop, I used a Logitech webcam. I’d literally tell people “any model from Logitech will do” — the brand was and still is synonymous with webcams.
That all changed last year when remote work became The New Normal and meetings over Zoom exploded. It became painfully obvious that the grainy 720p — or worse VGA 480p webcam like the one on my 12-inch MacBook — wouldn’t cut for endless hours of Zoom. Canon, Sony, GoPro, and the likes made a mad dash to push out software that turned their cameras into webcams.
With the exception of streamers or bedroom vloggers, I don’t think it occurred to many people to even want to use their mirrorless or DSLRs as webcams. Overnight, tripods and ring lights and light diffusers became a hot commodity. At one point webcams were sold out everywhere and scalpers were reselling old models for a pretty profit margin.
The problem with using a mirrorless camera like a Sony A6400 is that the setup is on the bulky side. You need some of the aforementioned gear and extra desk space; a mirrorless camera can’t simply clip onto a laptop screen without falling over.
Enter the Opal C1 webcam from a startup with the same name. The GoPro-sized webcam is an attempt to deliver “DSLR quality” video at a fraction of and size and cost of a DSLR-webcam rig.
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Who is Opal?
They’re a new San Francisco-based startup from Veeraj Chugh, who has worked at Google, Jump, and Uber, and Stefan Sohlstrom, who has worked at Otto, Plaid, and Uber Freight. Like most startup founders, the two wear multiple hats; Chugh is CEO and leads hardware and Sohlstrom is president and leads software development. Together with Opal’s lead designer Kenny Sweet, whose resume includes time at design powerhouses Pentagram, Ammunition, and Google, the startup is determined to revolutionize webcams with a combination of powerful and hardware and software.
Opal was founded in December 2020 after Chugh, like many people, found themselves in front of a webcam for multiple hours a day. Frustrations with webcam image and sound quality led Chugh and company to build a better product. Opal’s mission is to “build the best camera for remote work.”
But before Opal, Chugh, Sohlstrom, and Sweet, had already been collaborating for four years, Sohlstrom tells me. The trio worked nights and weekends on “all sorts of products.” When the pandemic hit and work from home became commonplace, that’s when Chugh put the brakes on their other projects and they went all-in on a webcam.
Despite mostly operating in stealth until September, Opal has attracted the kind of funding and investment that so many Kickstarters can only dream of. Big-time investors and entrepreneurs like Reddit cofounder Alexis Ohanian, YouTube cofounder Chad Hurley, Instagram cofounder Mike Krieger, Twitch cofounder Kevin Lin, former VP of VR at Meta/Facebook Hugo Barra, are just a few of the believers in Opal.
Ohanian’s tweet in September is how the world (myself included) first learned about Opal and the C1 and no doubt contributed to over 16,000 people joining the waitlist to buy the webcam.
“Alexis graciously offered just to get a sense of the demand signal for the product,” recalls Sohlstrom. “He launches this tweet — importantly, it doesn’t have a URL because we’re like ‘no, we kind of still want to be a little in the shadows’ but, of course, people find the site and actually our site goes down. It goes down three times.”
It’s important that I be clear from the jump that the Opal C1 is still in beta. The hardware is final, but the software, Opalsoft, is not. There are several features like “studio sound” that haven’t been added yet. Other features (more on some of these later) that the Opal team is still figuring out how to implement. And tweaks (i.e. bug fixes and improvements) that will continually roll out with feedback from users; an update to improve autofocus and add resolutions up to 4K was pushed out 24 hours after I had brought it up with the team.
Opalsoft is also Mac-only for now. The C1 webcam works like any plug-and-play webcam with a PC (I had no issues using it with my Windows 10 desktop), but you won’t get any of the computational photography or manual controls that are available with the macOS software — half of the C1 webcam’s appeal. A version of the software for Windows is on Opal’s roadmap, I’m told. But the expanse of PC hardware to optimize for means it won’t come until “later next year.”
Everything is a work in progress, so this isn’t a final review of everything the Opal C1 is capable of; things should only get better (hopefully not worse). But even in beta — so far, I’m impressed with the hardware and software. The Opal C1 might be the “1984” moment for webcams the way the Macintosh was for PCs.
Most webcams are ugly. They either look like any oblong-shaped Logitech webcam or a circle or squircle. Dell’s UltraSharp 4K webcam is the rare exception, but also, the design is cribbed from Apple’s iSight webcam from almost 20 years prior; it also doesn’t even come with a built-in microphone, which is ludicrous for a $200 webcam. “It's weird that the thing that sits on top of your monitor or laptop that's staring at you all day, that's literally a piece of furniture doesn't look so good,” says Chugh.
Right off the bat, the Opal C1 commands attention. The webcam’s blocky CNC’d aluminum enclosure and coiled cable hark back to the early days of personal computing.
“We wanted a fresh opinion of what [a webcam] could look like. We think so much of this peripheral or kind of computer hardware falls into two camps,” says Chugh. “Camp number one is like 'Mountain Dew-Doritos in your mom's basement from 2001, gamer aesthetic where it's like rainbow lights and dragons' and it's like no one wants that anymore. That aesthetic died 15 years ago and most companies haven't realized yet. The second is trying to look like Apple. You can buy so many devices right now that literally try to match the color of your MacBook and get to the exact fit and finish because they just want to get the Apple glory.”
“We did call back on like Richard Sapper design from the ‘80s and Braun design from the ‘70s.”
“A lot of the design was driven by the process,” says Sweet. “We did call back on like Richard Sapper design from the ‘80s and Braun design from the ‘70s because it suited the process so well. It was very much about very purposeful forms and very subdued forms. We didn't want something that was going to take on a personality of its own. “That's not the point of this camera, nor should it be the point of any camera probably — to be the center of attention. It's really meant to sort of complement whatever rig you're using it with.”
A beautiful product is not enough anymore. Increasingly, consumers value sustainability in their gadgets. What kind of environmental impact does a company, its processes, and product materials have for the wellbeing of our planet? Sustainability is important to Opal. Most parts of the C1 camera are recyclable and there’s less than one percent of plastic in it; the packaging is 100 percent recyclable.
“I think Veeraj may have purchased about 100 to 200 different webcams off Alibaba,” says Solhstrom. “Our big kind of question was: Why did these all suck? Like, why are they all terrible?”
The answer is two-fold: most webcams use small image sensors and any image processing done via software is usually barebones or nonexistent. These tiny image sensors are cheap especially in bulk, which is great for profit margins, but come at the expense of image quality. A larger image sensor costs more but would let in more light, which means less digital noise, and usually shallower depth of field — characteristics that many people associate with “DSLR-like.” As for webcam software — there’s little incentive for webcam makers to pour money into enhancing image quality with software when their products are often disposable.
The Opal C1 has both a large image sensor (for a webcam) and smart software. At $300, it wasn’t made to be tossed into the trash if it stops working; it’s made to last (and get better with updates). The C1 uses a Sony IMX378 image sensor, which is the same sensor Google used in its very first Pixel phone back in 2016. At first, you might think a five-year-old image sensor is dated. For a smartphone’s main camera — yes. But for a webcam? It’s a major upgrade over the tiny sensors inside most webcams, like most Logitech ones.
“As far as I know, it’s the biggest sensor ever used on a webcam,” says Chugh. “These are usually the types of parts that get reserved for like an iPhone or a Google [Pixel].”
Combined with an f/1.8 lens with six glass elements (a lot of phones use plastic elements), the Opal C1 is capable of capturing 4K resolution video at up to 30 fps. You may have seen some video samples on Opal’s website comparing the C1 to a MacBook webcam and Sony A7 mirrorless camera. Here’s some real footage that hasn’t been cherrypicked by the company:
Opal C1 webcam vs. 14" MacBook Pro FaceTime HD webcam vs. Sony A6300 vs. Logitech C930e webcam on Zoom. Videos recorded from Zoom (720p default resolution).
Pretty f*cking great — for a webcam. While not exactly “DSLR quality” as Opal hyperbolically claims, the C1’s video is DSLR-like. The C1 blows away my Logitech C930e and the built-in webcam on the new 14-inch MacBook Pro. Surprisingly, out of the box, the Opal C1 actually looks better than my Sony A6300 with 24-70mm lens (set at 24mm at f/2.8). Not to mention, I didn’t have compatibility issues; I couldn’t use my A6300 with any Apple Silicon Mac because Sony’s Image Edge software isn’t compatible with it, so I used a PC. And then I had problems getting audio to work. Using a pair of earbuds seemed to do the trick, except when I checked the Zoom recording, it didn’t capture audio. The C1 just works. No troubleshooting is needed and no crazy tripods or rigs are required.
But similar to how your phone’s portrait mode isn’t quite DSLR quality, the C1’s video does look DSLR-like if you’re not scrutinizing the pixels. For most people, DSLR-like is enough if it means reduced complexity. “We're trying to get users as close as possible with that using the same technology of hardware and software and have it be plug and play,” says Chugh.
“So like you're willing to trade off all the dongles, and all the wires, and all the desk space, and all the headache, and the few thousand dollars for something that you can, out of the box, plug it in, and it's good to go, and gets you like really, really close with an image with bokeh and things like that.”
“Cameras are no longer just hardware.”
Camera nerds will thumb their noses at the Opal C1 for relying on software in place of bonafide glass, but let’s be honest, these purists will never accept computational photography. The quasi-DSLR image will never be enough for them. Opal isn’t trying to win these people over. The C1 is aimed at users who value simplicity, not pixel perfection.
“Cameras are no longer just hardware,” says Sohlstrom. “It's not just about the sensor you put in. So much of the heavy lifting is done on the software side.”
With the Opalsoft software, there are myriad camera settings literally in your menu bar. You can adjust the bokeh all the way from f/2.8 down to f/0.7; Focus Lock can track your face and keep you in frame kind of like on the Portal smart displays; there’s an effects section for touching up your skin or pixelating your video; and manual settings that let you dial in brightness, exposure, contrast, saturation, etc. just like you can a video in Final Cut Pro or Premiere Pro. I’m sure there are some webcams that let you do maybe some of these things, but most do not; my Logitech C930e doesn’t and definitely not in real-time on Zoom; the C1 is made for Zoom first.
Most of the image tuning happens invisibly in the background — you’d never know it.
“We have an Intel chip in the camera that is specifically made for doing Tensor operations. These are like neural net operations,” explains Sohlstrom. “At any given time, we have about four or five neural nets running on device. And so what that lets us do is actually build machine learning enhancement features into the pipeline that help you look or sound better.”
Tuning the color is the first step. Frame prediction, which predicts where you’ll move for features like Focus Lock and helps combat autofocus “hunting,” is the second. Sohlstrom tells me there’s a 15-stage ISP (image signal processor) pipeline to achieve the video end-users see during real-time video calls.
By default, the Opal C1 downsamples 4K resolution to 1080p. This is by design, I’m told, since most video conferencing software like Zoom tops out at 1080p resolution. You can record video at 1440p (QHD) or 2160p (4K), but the webcam will run hot. Opal says much of the heat coming off the C1 is from the chip running on-device neural networks for the image enhancements; it’s “actively reducing” the heat.
Shipping was top of mind for Chugh. “Consumers are tired of the Kickstarter thing that never arrives. Putting their credit card in for something that they don't get for two years. We really wanted to be one of the companies that, actually, delivers on getting you a unit without making you wait for a long time.” To quote Steve Jobs, “real artists ship.”
The Opal C1 webcam starts shipping today, December 14; waitlisted customers will be sent an invite to purchase. Even with over 16,000 interested customers, Chugh intends to meet demand even amidst shortages in the global supply chain. He says they started securing components well before the supply chain shortages started; his experience at Jump working with scooter and bike vendors and suppliers based in China prepared them well.
Once C1 webcams are out in the real world, the Opalsoft beta continues. Chugh wouldn’t commit to a timeline for when the Opalsoft beta would end. “There's still a lot of things to work on and we have a lot of features still in development.”
“Consumers are tired of the Kickstarter thing that never arrives.”
Sohlstrom tells me they’re working on a bunch of features that use software to replace hardware. Improving audio quality is high on the to-do list. Instead of needing something like a separate boom or cardioid microphone, Opal wants to use audio from the C1’s MicMesh beamforming mics through neural networks to cancel out background noise and improve clarity — this feature is called “Studio Sound” and could be game-changing for podcasters. Sohlstrom says the sound would be around “95 percent of the level of that studio sound.” Other planned features include lighting replacements using neural networks (think iPhone’s “studio lighting” for portrait mode) and a way to actually help users improve their speaking. So for instance, the C1 webcam would measure how often you use filler words like “um” or “like” or “well” and send a notification after a call to give you feedback. At least that’s the plan. Such a feature would need to be airtight in terms of privacy. Sohlstrom concurs and says it’d be something that would be done entirely on-device with no audio recordings ever sent to the cloud or stored elsewhere.
“This is a camera that’s just sitting on your desk and if it turns into a device that is for surveillance, it’s the wrong direction, and not where we want to take it,” says Sohlstrom. “None of the frames and none of the audio leaves the device. Every neural net is running on your device and it will keep all of the content, all of the data, all the video, all the audio directly on device. We’re not seeing any of that.”
Being a guinea pig for an unproven, unfinished, and expensive product is always a tough sell. For example, I wasn’t an advocate for Samsung’s first Galaxy Z Fold. As the Wall Street Journal’s Joanna Stern put it: we’re not your beta testers. At $300, Opal’s C1 webcam is pricey for a webcam when you compare it to a rinky-dink one for $100 or less. It’s a bargain versus a kitted-out mirrorless camera or DSLR, that would start at double, triple, or more, though.
There are apps like Camo that can turn iPhones into webcams. But the free version does come with limitations like 720p resolution. To capture at 1080p, remove the watermark, make manual image adjustments, or get any face-tracking features, you need to pony up for a subscription ($5/month; $40/year) or a lifetime $80 license. Not to mention, you’ll still need to plug your iPhone in via a cable and figure out how to mount it. Chugh doesn’t see these smartphones-as-webcams as competition; they’re more like “stopgap or an emergency solution if their webcam broke” he says.
It’s a bargain versus a kitted-out mirrorless or DSLR.
“People hacking their thousand-dollar phones into webcams shows how badly they want this problem solved. We’re spending hours a day on Zoom and a gimmicky setup isn’t going to cut it. People don’t want hacks, they want something that’s plug and play and makes them look great.”
Like any Apple or Teenage Engineering product, the Opal C1 is beautiful, easy to use, and costs a premium. It’s not for everyone, but my god is it a product you’ll want.