March 25, 1997 1:45 PM ET
Is the Internet ready for a new 'View-Master'?
By Sean Silverthorne

  When Jim Phillips was a kid, his ticket to exotic lands and ideas was View-Master, the binoculars-shaped toy that served up three-dimensional photographs of the Egyptian pyramids (click), Carlsbad Caverns (click) and Mickey Mouse.

Does Phillips now hold the keys to the View-Master of the 21st century? The new chairman, president and CEO of Omniview Inc. certainly thinks so. The company's "Photobubbles" technology offers 360-degree views knitted together from photographs of scenic views, apartments for rent and online catalog pictures.

With the drag of a mouse pointer, you can stand on the edge of the Grand Canyon, turn completely around, look up and down. The photos are viewed with a special software viewer or via a browser plug-in.

But that's flat-Earth stuff compared to what's coming, according to Phillips. Later this year, Omniview, of Knoxville, Tenn., will sell a virtual reality headset that allows users to "climb into" photos. He envisions children using the VR headset to stand in the center of the Roman Coliseum and other historic places.

Planned in the more far off future are video Photobubbles, where, say, basketball fans could take a seat just above the center of the court as the game whizzes by them. "As we move to video platforms, I'll stick you in there for real," enthuses Phillips.

Whoa, hold up on that fast break. First, Omniview must transform itself from a long-standing R&D; house into an organization that can commercialize products. After all, it hired its first full-time sales person just a month ago. And Omniview must fend off very big challenges in the online 3-D imaging market from competitors including Apple Computer Inc. and Live Picture Inc.

Plus there is this basic question: Is there really much demand for 3-D, 360-degree photos online? "This isn't a huge market anytime soon, but that doesn't mean someone can't make a little money off of it," says Dan Lavin, an analyst at Dataquest Inc.

But Phillips, 45, knows something about commercializing new technology. In the late 1980s, he co-founded a company called National Satellite Paging, and saw quickly that paging technology aimed at doctors and plumbers could be a mass market hit if handled correctly. He changed the name to SkyTel and ordered up advertisements of ordinary people slipping the SkyPage pager into their pockets. Today, some 40 million people have pager accounts.

He's at it again. Phillips promises to change not only the Photobubbles name but the company moniker as well. All in time to launch an initial public offering at an undetermined date. The privately held company doesn't release financial information.

The technology for capturing 3-D images employs a standard 35mm camera rigged with a fish-eye lens and a special turning device. Two pictures of a scene are snapped, one forward, one back. The fish eye takes in the top and bottom of the scene as well. From there, Omniview's processing and stitching software pulls the two shots together.

Omniview charges licensees about $150 per image. Customers include Toyota, which uses Photobubbles to spruce up its online showroom. Resort Condominiums Inc. and Rent.Net use Photobubbles to display prized properties.

Eventually, however, the company expects the device to become an affordable consumer technology.

At the moment, Omniview's competition is limited. Apple's QuickTime VR software creates 360-degree views, but it requires eight photos to do so, and there are no top and bottom views.

More compelling could be the competition from Live Picture, based in Scotts Valley, Calif., which allows viewers to zoom in, walk around and manipulate objects in the image. "If you go to a store, you don't expect to just stand there," says Eric Chen, a Live Picture vice president.

Phillips isn't cowed. Photobubbles, he gushes, "will change the Internet more than anything that has occurred over the last two years."

Omniview wants to license its surround photos to the U.S. Department of Defense, online newspapers, golf resorts, private investigators, CD-ROM encyclopedias--even airlines. Airlines? Sure, says Phillips. Wouldn't you pay a little extra to have a 360-degree view from your airplane?

The company has 40 employees but expects to grow to up to 200 during the next year. A Silicon Valley office is scheduled to be opened.

He's worked quickly since joining as CEO in February, signing up a second round of financing from Motorola Inc. and a first-round equity stake from Discovery Communications Inc. Details of the investments were not released.

Before Omniview, Phillips was corporate vice president and general manager of Motorola's Multimedia Market Division. There he headed up worldwide distribution and marketing.

Whether he can copy his SkyTel success remains to be seen. But this much is clear: He'll need every ounce of experience to make Photobubbles rise above the competition.

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