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Making Karma: Behind the scenes with GoPro's camera drone

Engadget Engadget 20/09/2016 James Trew

© Provided by Engadget

A typical GoPro camera launch is much how you'd imagine it to be: Extreme sport athletes perform for the press at a beautiful outdoorsy location. But where I am today is not a typical GoPro launch. That won't happen for a few weeks yet, when CEO and Founder Nick Woodman will present the company's much-anticipated Karma drone to the world.

Karma's reveal will be the climax to one of GoPro's most scrutinized business moves yet. After multipledelays and much investor speculation, it's important that GoPro get this one right. Will Karma silence GoPro's doubters, or give them more to talk about? Engadget spent some time behind the scenes during Karma's crucial final stages to find out.

That's why I'm on a farm in northern California surrounded by dirt, tractors and a lone portapotty. A team of GoPro employees is working under gazebos, fiddling with wires poking out of stripped-down prototypes. Concentrated faces stare into laptops as they spew out technical readouts. Four or five quadcopters are flying in the overcast sky at any one time, often more. This is where Karma is being refined and -- literally -- field-tested ahead of its public reveal.

The atmosphere is upbeat, but serious. There's work to be done. The assorted drones, controllers and batteries dotted around aren't final hardware. Each has a version number scribbled in magic marker. The low hum of spinning rotors drowns out the nearby traffic from the Pacific Coast Highway. There's little in the way of glamour here, until a lemon yellow vintage Porsche roars up a dirt track and into the field we're standing in.

GoPro's charismatic CEO Nick Woodman unfolds from the car. It's a 1970 Carrera tweaked to match the much rarer '73 GT "They're basically the same," he tells me, after greeting his staff with smiles and high-fives. It's been a tough year for the company. It started with layoffs in January, and investors have made much about the sinking share price -- a narrative that Woodman is eager to put to rest. But if Woodman is nervous about the big launch just around the corner, you wouldn't know it.

Karma's success isn't just about pleasing shareholders. This is the first major GoPro launch that isn't a camera (although the company revealed a pair of those this week too). That means the company is wading into unknown waters. Launching mainstream products is risky even when you have years of experience -- just ask Apple and Samsung. Totally new ventures multiply those challenges.

So when I ask him why they made a drone, his first answer is predictably on message: "We're always looking for new ways to help users capture new perspectives." But Woodman's a little more relaxed once he actually shows me the Karma bundle for the first time. "We wanted to develop an experience that people would be blown away by," he says. "After you're done being blown away, we want people to think 'of course this is how GoPro did it.'"

By now the secret is out. Karma isn't just a drone. It's a package that includes a quadcopter, a stabilizing handheld grip (that's also wearable) plus a touchscreen controller and a backpack (that doubles as a launch pad!). The camera stabilizer is removable and can be placed into the handheld, a party trick that makes Karma a ground-based stabilizer as well as a drone. Note that rival DJI also makes drones (obviously) and handheld stabilizers, but sells them as individual products.

Most people were expecting a drone, but GoPro actually developed Karma as a complete stabilization system. That's why there's a teaser video shot in a library that would have been near-impossible with just a quadcopter. Karma isn't just about getting cameras up in the sky -- it's about improving self-shot video for every one. A much bigger strategy than just adding a radio-controlled accessory to the line up. One that will pay dividends for GoPro's image every time a silky-smooth video gets uploaded to the internet.

Despite the promise of better video for shooters and viewers alike, the biggest surprise with Karma might be the price. The above bundle and a GoPro Hero5 Black costs $1,099 ($999 if you opt for the Hero5 Session; $799 if you bring your own). That's not exactly cheap, but the cameras alone account for a sizable chunk of that. If you want a 4K DJI Phantom 3 or 4, things start at $999. Add an Osmo Mobile and you're already at $1,300. Woodman tells me that after the fumbled launch of the Hero4 Session, "We did not want to make the same mistake with Karma. And so that's why we took the extra time to make it an incredible experience and price it right so that we don't have any question marks hanging over it."

For a company associated with daredevil stunts and adrenaline, it feels like GoPro is playing it relatively safe with Karma. The drone eschews tricks like follow mode and obstacle avoidance, opting instead for a slick user experience. There's a clever "Passenger" app will let friends control the camera while you fly via a smartphone, or the boring yet practical placement of the camera, that ensures propellers don't get in your video. GoPro is hoping to appeal to consumers used to box-ready, glossy products -- not the budget-conscious or hobby RC crowd. It's a market DJI has courted with the successful Phantom series, but GoPro has specifically leveraged its experience with non-pilots to build something it thinks they'd want.

Flying Karma is simple. The controller was deliberately designed to handle like on a game console, so it feels natural. There are no dorky antennas, no protruding clip for your phone, no WiFi networks to join. Instead there's a bright 5-inch, 720p touchscreen baked into the clamshell design. Open it and a message greets you: "Swipe up to fly." It feels more like checking your email than running through a pre-flight rain dance.

I swipe up, as instructed, and seconds later I'm in the air. There are almost no dials and widgets on the screen; no pilot terminology (no "aileron," "yaw" or "pitch"). Every now and then a calm voice delivers instructions and alerts -- something that on other quadcopters usually involves a nagging beep or a throbbing red light. Grant McCauley, UX lead for the controller tells me why. "The last thing you want when you're having an 'oh shit' moment or you've lost the drone is a siren like something that's going to self destruct." You'll get about 20 minutes in the air per charge, and batteries recharge in an hour.

Woodman explains why they wanted to avoid the "usual" drone experience: "We've been consistently guilty of building products for ourselves that we really want and that's worked really well over the years." Basically, GoPro is its own customer. The staff I speak with don't want to think about flying in Mode 1 or Mode 2, or care what a flight controller is. They're probably cool with putting on a backpack and getting on with their snowboarding, though.

You only need to spend five minutes at the company's San Mateo offices to see that GoPro's staff live the brand. The sand-colored low-rise buildings look like any other business park, but there are no suits. The average age feels like "thirty something;" shorts and caps replace slacks and loafers. Before meeting my PR contact, she sends a message warning me not to be freaked out: A recent surfing injury had given her a black eye -- an injury that anywhere else would elicit concern. At GoPro HQ it's a badge of honor earning high-fives and kudos. These are the people who built Karma.

Leading that team is Pablo Lema, Senior Director of Aerial products at GoPro. I asked him: Other than the user experience, what problems was hoping to solve with Karma? "The analogy I like to give is that drones are in this 'luggable' state," he said. "If you remember the old laptops you used to carry around they were technically portables, but they were very heavy, very bulky, very cumbersome." Lema doesn't name any names, but it's hard not to think of the game's largest player: DJI and its ubiquitous Phantom series.

Even before Karma hits shelves and faces the public jury, it has a distinct advantage. 3DR will no longer make consumer drones, pretty much guaranteeing GoPro be the biggest US player in the high street drone space from day one. DJI has a healthy head start -- the Phantom 3 is reportedly the most popular drone in the world -- but but doesn't have the same brand reach GoPro does (for so-called "normals"). Other companies like Yuneec offer competitive value, but with more complex controls and (in my experience) weaker cameras. Parrot's focus is in the department store, or executive toy section.

Karma's simplicity is deceiving. "We started with a small team," says Lema. "We used them to attract other people that are roboticists, we have control theory folks. We have a team that joined us in Zurich, that's our advanced navigation team that's working on some future product ideas."

That last part is important. Lema is referring to Skybotix a company GoPro acquired that specializes in autonomous flight. Karma doesn't have much in the way of autonomous flight features, which will be the biggest eyebrow-raise of Karma's launch for most industry pundits. There are smart camera modes like "orbit" and virtual cable cam (which in my experience are actually more useful). But, unlike AirDog and the Phantom 4 (and many others), it doesn't follow you.

Most "experts" would have bet good money that feature would have been included. I gather it's possible/incoming, but it's not a launch day priority -- and would probably require an accessory. Likewise, unlike DJI's Phantom 4 or Yuneec's Typhoon H, Karma doesn't have any form of collision detection or object recognition. Ostensibly, two large omissions -- but not according to GoPro.

Lema is confident that his team has gone about things the right way. "There are many drones out there, but this one is ours," he says. "We wanted to create something that's first and foremost about ease of use, and related to how GoPro users will use our cameras." That's not to say you can't expect a few updates in the works, or more feature-rich versions in the future. Lema hints some of these could be coming soon.

"We look at what's happening with technologies in the industry. I think you'll see some stuff coming out of GoPro in future products that'll be pretty incredible," he says, before reminding me, "We have full teams that work on collision avoidance."

GoPro's cameras are rare in that they are used by consumers and professionals alike. Something the company hopes will be true for Karma. When I sit in on one of the Karma promo video edits, I realize that the development of Karma doesn't just happen on the whiteboards over in engineering. The company's own media team has played a key role in shaping it, sneaking in selfish feature requests that might be invisible to the consumer -- but could give Karma more curb appeal to lightweight professional crews.

For example, Karma's engineers added a "dronie" mode -- where the quadcopter moves up and away from the subject in a dramatic rise. Sam Lazarus, the lead for Karma's media team, told me that it was their experiences out in the field that got the feature changed from an angular, robotic straight-line "lift" to a much slicker, more cinematic curved Hollywood-style "reveal."

I hear about many such fine-tune details during my time in different departments. GoPro clearly hopes they all add up to something that stands out in a busy, smart drone market. This month alone, DJI is likely launching its most consumer-friendly drone yet, and cheaper competition from Yuneec or Parrot etcetera isn't stopping any time soon. Not to mention the sheer number of cheap, unknowncamera drones at the low end. With action cameras, GoPro inspired the imitations that meant it had to diversify. With drones, the bargain-priced no-name brands were already there.

One of the very first things I asked Woodman at the farm was, what he would have done differently with Karma if he had the chance to do it all over again? "The development of Karma has gone so well," he said," and OK, it took us a little bit longer than we'd intended, but the end result is so phenomenal, that I wouldn't change anything about how we approached developing Karma." He added: "If we were just developing a drone, we could have released it much sooner."

Karma goes with you

Nick Woodman - CEO & Founder, GoPro

Perhaps Karma's delay worked out for the best? This week GoPro also announced its most user-friendly cameras yet, along side a shiny new cloud service that aims to solve GoPro's age old problem of getting video off of users' memory cards, and out on the internet where it belongs (promoting the brand). Yesterday's launch was much more than a drone -- it was a mini-relaunch of the company's whole line-up.

As such, GoPro delivered its most coherent vision of its future yet, and Karma is poised to be a huge part of that. The product lineup is more focused than ever before, the drone adds an exciting new opportunity, and the cloud platform should help glue it all together (along with improved mobile apps). All reports suggest drones will be big business, and it feels like GoPro is well placed to make them "cool." Whether shoppers actually take to Karma is yet to be known, but GoPro's trying to make it as easy as possible.

Having spoken extensively to people behind the scenes, the tone was clear: It's a confident ending to bumpy two years, and it's hard not to feel good about the new lineup. At one point at the farm, as on-brand as ever, Woodman told me "Karma goes with you" -- a cheesy play on words he's likely going to be saying a lot this week across the media. But, needless to say, with both the cameras and drone hitting stores in October, he at least hopes Karma makes it as far as the checkout.

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