High-speed photography is a lot of fun. Ever since Eadweard Muybridge photographed galloping horses in the late 1800s, people have been using high-speed photography to see what happens when a water balloon bursts or when a lightbulb smashes. And, of course, high-speed cameras are ubiquitous in sports.
But high-speed photography has more serious applications too. Manufacturers, for example, can use it to monitor fast-moving assembly equipment. Adoption, however, is limited by the expense of the equipment: Today’s high-speed cameras typically cost around US $30,000 to $150,000 or rent for up to $5,000 a day.
Enter Sanstreak Corp., cofounded by Mike Matter in 2012. Sanstreak is a small company in San Jose, Calif., funding itself with angel investment, a 2013 Kickstarter campaign, and sales. Sanstreak’s strategy is to prioritize price over performance: It sells its Edgertronic camera for just $5,500. Says Matter, “It’s equivalent to buying a $2,000 oscilloscope—it’s not the fanciest one out there, but it’s a good, solid product that gets the job done.”
Founded: October 2012
Headquarters: San Jose, Calif.
Founders: Mike Matter, Juan Pineda
Funding: Not disclosed
Employees: 1 full-time, 5 part-time
At age 12, Matter souped up a strobe flash to take stop-action photos of a golf club hitting a ball; as an electrical engineering student, he studied under high-speed photography pioneer Harold “Doc” Edgerton. So after spending a career designing computers, MPEG decoders, and electron microscopes, he decided to make something he really wanted—an affordable high-speed camera.
First, he eliminated frills, such as the camera’s display screen. High-speed cameras are typically set up on a stationary platform or tripod, not hand carried, and most users have a tablet or laptop handy, so the Edgertronic piggybacks on that external display. And if you’re connecting to an external computer, you don’t need controls on the camera either.
Matter’s current design shoots 1280 by 1024 pixels at about 500 frames per second and up to 18,000 frames per second at reduced resolutions. It comes in a small, square blue metal case and was named in homage to Doc Edgerton. The company says it has sold about 400 cameras to date and earned back its development costs by the end of 2013.
Matter has already heard of a few new applications for the Edgertronic, which could help expand the market for high-speed photography: One customer, he says, is using one to research better ways to literally separate the wheat from the chaff.
Sanstreak’s timing is right, says Christopher Chute, a vice president at the analyst firm IDC. The video-camera market is moving away from the rental model, with even 4K-resolution cameras, another previously expensive technology, selling for under $10,000. Whether or not Sanstreak will ultimately be successful, Chute says, depends on how much momentum it can gain. “And that could be tricky,” he says, “because the cinema space is still a cottage industry,” while the nonprofessional, camera enthusiast market is bigger but harder to define. Eventually, he says, the real value will likely be in industrial and medical applications, so Matter will need to tap these markets.
And, says Chute, while Matter has no immediate rivals at his current price, he will likely face competition soon: “There are probably other similar projects germinating in a lab or in someone’s brain right now.”
This article originally appeared in print as “Sanstreak Lowers the Cost of High-Speed Photography.”
Tekla S. Perry is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Based in Palo Alto, Calif., she's been covering the people, companies, and technology that make Silicon Valley a special place for more than 30 years. An IEEE member, she holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from Michigan State University.