In Conversation With CEO of Superhexa, the Xiaomi-Backed Firm Shaping the Future of Cameras
A two-hour interview at the Beijing headquarters of Superhexa with its founder and CEO offers much enlightenment, and might resonate among hardware geeks, tech entrepreneurs and realistic visionaries.
Xia Yongfeng, an automation graduate of Beihang University, previously known as Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics, began his career as a magazine journalist who later partook in starting GeekPark, a major Chinese tech media and innovators’ community.
Motivated by a zeal for hardware, Xia joined Xiaomi in 2013, where he had risen to prominence as an influential asset to the tech giant’s ever-expanding ecosystem beyond its original smartphone expertise. Eventually, he mounted a final challenge with the founding of Superhexa in October 2020, the same year he was named among the 100 prominent contributors to then 10-year-old Xiaomi.
The July interview with Pandaily, prior to Superhexa’s new product announcement, turned out to be a momentous trailer for not just a new breed of camera glasses, but Xia’s roughly two-year preparation for himself to be known as a head-mounted gadget visionary who’ll make astronaut helmets in the future.
During the interview, Xia and Guo Jun, a partner at Superhexa, took the wraps off a smart glasses addition to Xiaomi’s Mijia, or Mi Home, ecosystem.
The new product looks not much different from ordinary eyeglasses, other than an 8MP periscope telephoto camera with 15x mixed zoom and a 50MP Quad Bayer four-in-one wide-angle main camera, both on the left side of the front of the frame. An LED shooting indicator is attached to the main camera body, which lights up immediately when the eyewear is activated to take photos or record videos.
In addition to default plano-convex lenses, a handful of lens replacement options are available for those with blurry vision.
Powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon eight-core chipset, the new device, equipped with a 1020mAh battery, is capable of 100 minutes of continuous video recording or more than three hours of intermittent use. It takes less than 30 minutes to charge the device from 0 to 80 percent.
Packing a Sony Micro-OLED display with 1,800 nits of visible brightness, far above 200 nits on the part of similar offerings or 600 nits in a smartphone case, the new product can work perfectly in glaring sunshine, according to Guo.
The smart glasses feature Xiaomi’s AI real-time translation between Chinese and English and augmented reality (AR) functions. The eyewear also has functions such as time backtracking that can save videos within 10 sections prior to the start of shooting. Photos or videos can be imported from the glasses to the user’s smartphone through an app tailored for the glasses. The connectivity is enabled via Bluetooth and Wi-Fi.
For first-time users, it might take a little while to get used to a small touchpad as part of the right arm. The touchpad enables users to choose from different functionalities, among wide-ranging operations.
The accessibility feature of voice control will come to the product some time in the future, Guo said, without elaborating.
Voice control still can’t be relied on as a default means of interaction, as spoken commands are shown to be invalid in many circumstances, such as in the subway, Xia said.
Instead of boasting that the product is a versatile head-mounted masterpiece, Xia gave a straightforward account of the device’s killer use scenario – hands-free shooting that allows the user to live up to the slogan “what you see is what you get.”
The quality of photos and video snaps produced by the glasses was well above expectations, per Pandaily’s hands-on experience.
In the words of Xia, the new glasses outsmart GoPro, DJI and other developers of action cameras. “We spent eight months merely on calibrating cameras with a 300-plus-page report that encapsulated all scenarios – daytime and evenings – produced in the wake of each phase of the calibration.”
The two-year glasses project, Xia disclosed, involved a nine-digit number investment, suggesting at least 100 million yuan ($14.8 million).
“Back in 2020, when we mulled over what future products would look like, glasses seemed to be a trendy option as smartphones hit a bottleneck while an adventure into cars was already too late,” Guo said, adding that while many people were working on glasses options with AR or virtual reality (VR) functionalities, such offerings have yet to become consumer-grade products.
Since Facebook renamed itself Meta Platforms in October 2021, concepts of metaverse-based immersive technology have been all the rage. Nonetheless, there remains no killer metaverse product for the time being, rendering a hardware success based on metaverse rather elusive. Hence, Superhexa’s future-oriented new product positions itself as camera-centric glasses.
The new gadget, officially known as the Mi Camera Glasses, was introduced by Xiaomi on August 1, with a suggested retail price tag of 2,699 yuan ($400). Crowdfunding for the product, priced at 2,499 yuan in crowdfunding’s case, began on August 3 and runs until August 17. It’s scheduled to hit the shelves in early September.
Superhexa founder and CEO speaks with Pandaily
Pandaily: Why did you leave Xiaomi to embark on the shooting adventure?
Xia: After Xiaomi went public in 2018, philosophical thinking began as some fundamental questions drifted into my mind: What am I, where do I come from and where am I going? At that moment, I was contemplating that if I could only do one thing for the rest of my life, what would it be? That must be something entirely within my control.
Before I made the decision to start my own business in 2020, some people gave me suggestions about where to start. Making satellites, an extremely popular undertaking around 2019 which was not that difficult, was one of the recommendations. A foray into automaking was another choice, for instance.
I set my sights on something that I wanted to do and that still had growth opportunities. Then AR and VR naturally came to my mind. But instead of falling under the category of AR and VR, our company is self-identified as a head-mounted smart gadget or wearable firm.
But why head-worn? For one thing, I bet that handheld devices, which are now going mainstream, are merely a staged existence throughout the evolution of portable smart equipment, as the likes of smartphones have one hand or both hands occupied, thereby inconveniencing various other aspects of real life.
For another, the head is supposedly central to people’s perception of the world. Consequently, the ultimate form of smart gadgets is destined to weigh toward the head from its current focus on hands – a makeover already underway. I think I could at least take part in the first phase of the shift over the rest of my life.
In regards to the second phase, namely the development of brain-computer interface (BCI) technology, neither you or I would be able to actually see major BCI progress.
Pandaily: Who would be the high-frequency users of these glasses?
Xia: The key to the product’s success would be securing an initial batch of users who would like to use the glasses on a frequent basis. On the part of the new glasses camera, they are thought to be those who create a lot of content, such as content curators, among other trailblazers. So long as the new glasses become a tool for content creators who might feature the use of the wearable in just a portion of their updated videos, adding to other cameras such as GoPro, smartphones or even single lens reflex cameras, I think that should suffice.
While traditional cameras have been trounced by smartphones, new types of cameras including the resurgent GoPro, Pocket 2, and Insta360 have over the past few years posted rapid growth.
Take Pocket 2 – not that many people around us are seen using it – but its annual sales in China still hit a million.
And I’m upbeat about the new head-worn camera offering an unrivaled shooting experience, underpinned by its high energy density battery – that’s several times more expensive than average batteries. In another sign, the camera glasses even outshines smartphones in that it sports a four-layer printed circuit board (PCB), while handsets boast a maximum of three-layer PCBs.
Moreover, all of its various components, including battery, storage, chipsets, and cameras, are embedded in its 100-gram body, with an area of heat dissipation only 25 percent the size of a smartphone.
Pandaily: How big is your startup team? What are Superhexa’s priority tasks?
Xia: The company now comprises some 80 people, with Xiaomi-origin staff members accounting for 27 percent overall, while the hardware team is mostly composed of professionals hailing from Huawei. The hardware and core technologies and components section now employs just short of 20 people.
It’s often the case that entrepreneurs tend to feel panicked and uncertain at the very beginning. As a consequence, they might rush to hunt for founding members – especially the first 10 people. If they lower the bar to quicken the pace of founding team creation, something might go awry for the startup over the long term.
We didn’t want to make such mistakes, as I considered the endeavor as a 20-year mission that wouldn’t matter if the first two years weren’t superbly fast-paced. It turned out that the founding team was created at a rate and with quality that beat previous expectations.
The two major tasks for the company this year include the product launch along with the company gaining visibility, as well as improving the corporate management framework. Next year, the company intends to focus on users, its own brand and globalization.
Pandaily: Are there any paths set for the overseas availability of the new product? Which markets would be eyed first?
Xia: As a Xiaomi-branded product, the glasses camera would be a member of the Xiaomi ecosystem in the domestic market. Then, our own brand would initially be heading toward the markets where Xiaomi remains absent – the US for example. A presence in the US would then pave the way for a foray into Mexico and Europe, which we’ll think about as the next step. We’ll make the move when the time is ripe for expansion. It remains uncertain whether the product will be made available in the European market under the Xiaomi brand.
We might begin with crowdfunding and online sales before starting out with the establishment of a distribution network. A tie-up with telecom operators will be considered at a later stage.
That said, we’d focus on the domestic product launch and sales at present, while a small number of gadgets would be reserved to test the waters in overseas markets.
Pandaily: As overseas users are generally concerned about their privacy and data security, how would you make them feel secure with the new glasses?
Xia: We’ve thought a lot about how to assure users that their privacy will be kept intact. First of all, the gadget doesn’t have an SD card. This means even if it’s used to shoot 10 GB of private content, other people wouldn’t be able to see the content, as users will have to log into their accounts to access the photos or videos. If someone happens to find a pair of lost glasses and tries to activate the gadget, it would only end up returning the gear to default settings.
In addition to user privacy protection, other people’s privacy would also be well protected, as the LED shooting indicator reminds people that the gadget is in working mode – if it’s used to take photos, the indicator flashes and it is continuously lit up while shooting videos.
Moreover, we’ll admonish users against wearing the glasses or using the gadget in inappropriate circumstances. Smartphones can actually enable shooting without sound and can be connected in real time to the internet, so for the glasses whose data require that the smartphone have access to the internet, they shouldn’t be worrying more about privacy than they are about phones.
Additionally, Amazon Web Services will be tapped for data storage as all the services for overseas markets are set to be localized, thereby ensuring no data returning.
Pandaily: What are the investor selection criteria for your company?
Xia: I found 10 small and micro-sized angel investors. I thought the overall structure and pace of my company’s fundraising could serve as a template for startups. I’ve researched equity structures of many startups. Presently, some of my ex-colleagues who plan to start their own businesses would simply get a copy of my research findings and follow suit.
What is the poster child like? You’d put aside 30 percent of the startup’s stakes for the establishment of a limited partnership. The partnership can be divided into 10 portions, with 10 of your friends funding one portion each. Instead of being recognized as individual or small shareholders, whose signatures will be indispensable for any equity-related decisions, the aforementioned structure, which is widely adopted in Silicon Valley, entitles the 10 people to economic rights while I’m the principal decision-maker.
More specifically, my criteria for investors in the pre-A round entails entrepreneurship on the part of investors. Tencent and Zhongyuan Capital led A-round investment in our company.
Pandaily: What’s your ultimate vision? A switch back to a journalism career?
Xia: I had considered switching back to journalism, but now my ultimate vision has changed. I want to go to Mars and I’m betting on manufactured products to go to Mars.
I hope I’ll make astronaut helmets in the future. Astronaut helmets would require frequent connection and information assistance, among other functionalities. Astronauts aren’t supposed to use a smartphone to make calls while walking in space. In that case, no handheld devices would be available and only head-mounted gadgets could be readily workable.
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