A family get-together in New York sparked a career change that turned a trio of telecom ASIC engineers in Silicon Valley into consumer electronics entrepreneurs. The first results of that change arrived last week in the form of Eye-Fi, an 802.11g card for digital cameras.
Former chip designer Yuval Koren recalled that family members had promised to send copies of their digital pictures after a gathering in New York at the end of 2004, but because of technological and user snafus, they never did. That prompted the engineer and two of his colleagues who helped develop the Cisco CRS-1 chip for high-end routers to launch a startup aimed at automating the process of sharing digital images. "We [came] from the opposite end of the spectrum from consumer electronics--big iron," said Koren.
The resulting Eye-Fi card fits into an SD slot and automatically sends pictures to a local PC or Mac, or to an online site based on preset user preferences. The $100 card went on sale Oct. 30 on a variety of online sites including Amazon and Wal-Mart.
This time around, the trio, who helped design one of the first interfaces for an OC-768 telecom line, used only off-the-shelf chips. The Eye-Fi card includes an Atheros integrated .11g chip and a 2-Gbyte flash memory device.
Users must first slot the card into a provided USB reader on a PC or Mac to set user policies. Whenever the card detects new photos and the presence of a Wi-Fi connection, it can send the pictures to the local computer or to one of 17 online photo Web sites including Facebook, Flickr, Photobucket and Shutterfly.
Once user preferences are set, the card can be plugged into any camera. It acts like a 2-Gbyte flash storage card but also sends photos automatically, drawing no more than the maximum 200 mW allowed by the 3.3-volt SD slot.
One downside of the product is that users cannot change settings on the camera, because the card will not work directly with the interface on the digital camera. So far, there are only a handful of cameras with integrated Wi-Fi on the market, the company said.
"The upside is we can work with any camera with an SD slot," said Koren. "So, we let you keep the camera you have or choose the camera you want. The choices are fairly restrictive if you want a camera with embedded Wi-Fi today."
The initial Eye-Fi card only handles pictures, but future versions will handle video as well. Premium services are also on the road map.
The company has worked with the separate applications programming interfaces of the various photo Web sites to automate the process of uploading pictures as part of a free service that comes with the Eye-Fi card. Users will have to pay for future services the company is planning but not ready to announce. "We have a deep pipeline of products and services we are considering," said Koren.
The startup may also consider rolling out cards that use other interfaces or communications protocols such as Bluetooth or ultrawideband. Today, some 60 percent of existing digital cameras have SD slots, and as many as 75 percent of new cameras have the slots. Sony's Memory Stick runs a distant second, and the aging CompactFlash card is slowly being phased out by most camera makers.
"The high-end cameras are still clinging to CompactFlash. It used to be everyone's bread and butter," said Koren.
"We know that a large percent of digital images captured each day are never printed or shared. That adds up to significant lost revenues for photo sharing and printing sites," Ron Glaze, an analyst at International Data Corp., said in a prepared statement. "We anticipate wireless cameras will fundamentally change the way people manage their digital photographs in the future, and we believe that the Eye-Fi card will help drive these changes."
The startup has raised $6.5 million in venture capital to date.