Will the Karma rise from the ashes, or become another footnote in the meteoric rise of drones? Sadly, I don’t think GoPro are going to have a good 2017.
At CES 2017 GoPro CEO Nick Woodman announced his commitment to bringing the Karma drone back to market after an embarrassing recall of the product the previous year. Only a few days later, Lily Robotics sent out an email stating that the Lily flying Camera, a darling of the VC scene with tens of thousands of pre-orders, was cancelled and the company closed. Whilst DJI enjoys continued success, many other companies are suffering — either scaling back their investment or closing completely. All the signs are that GoPro isn’t going to buck the trend.
GoPro have always been a lifestyle brand — from the original ‘surf bum’ beginnings, selling 35mm cameras on QVC, through to the regular attempts at setting up content and entertainment channels, the focus has always been on capturing sports and action rather than developing technology. They leveraged Chinese manufacturing to deliver products, but innovation was secondary. This has suited the company well, and it has a loyal following from users who have more interest in active lifestyle than complex technology.
However, when drones began to take off, GoPro cameras were a natural fit — small, light and very robust, they provided a one stop solution to aerial filming. The drone market is very different to the action sports demographic that GoPro counts as core, but probably as big. If they could expand into the new area, there was an opportunity for huge growth.. One of the early ‘consumer’ drones to make use of GoPro cameras was DJI’s Phantom, which quickly established this large untapped potential. Inevitably, GoPro and DJI entered talks to work together on a new product.
Unfortunately by all accounts, this is where things started to go wrong. As a lifestyle brand, GoPro appeared to feel that its name was the strongest part of any new product. Despite DJIs’ aggressive innovation and focus on cutting edge technology, GoPro treated them like any Chinese manufacturer and demanded the lion’s share of the planned product’s revenue. The companies soon fell out, and any joint product was abandoned. Shortly after, DJI began making its own cameras and GoPro began working on its own drone after a brief dalliance with the failed drone company 3DR. It’s thought that the Karma is so named as payback for the falling out with DJI.
So when the Karma launched within weeks of DJIs’ Mavic, the different attitudes of the two companies were sharply outlined. The Mavic is a technical device, compact and mechanically complex. It shows off the innovation that has driven DJI, with a tiny camera and gimbal, and a folding mechanism that allows it to fit into a small bag. It bristles with sensors and smart modes which are rapidly becoming a staple of these products. The Karma by contrast is slick and simple, a complete ‘camera system’ designed to make capturing events easy. The solid gimbal detaches to stabilise a hand-held camera, and the controls are clean and easy to use right out of the (slightly large) box. GoPro’s ‘surf bum’ isn’t going to have to spend hours explaining it to his friends.
The problem here is that capturing footage from the air is difficult. It’s difficult to fly any drone and even more so to fly whilst also controlling a camera. Even overcoming those challenges, aerial cameras are operating right at their limits. Bright skies and dark ground need all the dynamic range the sensor can muster, and wide open horizons emphasise any lens distortion. These are not yet ‘solved problems’, and the Karma doesn’t really attempt to solve them. It packages up the whole proposition in a nice lifestyle-friendly bundle, but doesn’t really innovate to help the proud owner make the most of what is an expensive and rather bulky kit bag.
Against that, DJI and indeed the rest of the drone industry has been furiously innovating. The Phantom series now comes packed with a mass of sensors providing obstacle avoidance and positioning. Smart modes follow, track and orbit the target, and camera technology is rapidly moving to larger sensors and high quality lenses. We’re still some way from truly autonomous, film quality cameras, but new generations are coming every nine months or so and each brings significant advances.
When GoPro first teased the Karma, they released a video showing a skier apparently taking a hand held selfie as they came down a hill. Then they hit a jump and did a full flip — but rather than the camera rolling with them, it effortlessly shot back in the air to show the whole stunt from a truly cinematic viewpoint. That was the selling point of the Karma — an effortless companion that could capture an extreme sports lifestyle with nothing more than a push off into the sky. No drone can do that, yet — but without hard technical innovation, the Karma is already a generation or more behind the competition.
This might not have hurt GoPro so much, but then they were hit by a catastrophic design fault in the Karma. The battery could become disconnected during flight, causing the 1 kilo (2.2lbs) drone to drop out of the sky. Sensibly they stopped sales immediately, recalled all machines and later disabled any remaining devices with a firmware update.
After two months’ silence though, the announcement at CES revealed that the Karma was not dead. A revised model is expected early this year. It’s good to see GoPro fighting back, but perhaps this is going to be too little too late. Already behind the curve on technical features, the Karma is entering a market that has seen what the company plans and has had time to innovate further. In the camera market, dominated by brand names, the Hero 5 camera is a relatively modest step up from the previous year’s model. In comparison the drone market is making leaps and bounds in functionality and features and six months feels like a long time.
This brings us back to Lily Robotics. Launched in 2015, their flying camera simply took too long to reach the shelves. Wildly innovative when it was first announced, the specs look fairly modest now and the machine has been superseded. GoPro risk suffering the same fate. Whilst the brand name may overcome those challenges, any action sports enthusiast is going to be less than thrilled if their expensive purchase doesn’t deliver easy ‘out of the bag’ satisfaction. More so if the next generation does. Technology may not be a key purchasing driver, but performance certainly is.
Worse still, it’s rumoured that DJI have taken a majority hold of veteran camera company Hasselblad. Other news has them working with Seagate on solutions to the perennial problem of storage for all those hours of video footage. It might take more than good karma to stay top of the mobile camera heap in 2017.