eye of a fly

We see you, ViSSee

Nicola Rohrseitz’s start-up, ViSSee, offers the world’s first portable, visual speed sensor. It could save millions of lives on the roadways. ViSSee also makes playful mobile apps like Masterdaelion, a touchless musical score reader, and AirDrum, for pounding on virtual hi-hats and toms. And it all began in a dungeon full of flies.

Rohrseitz has a background in robotics. He used to pilot airplanes, too, long before he earned a Ph.D. from ETH Zurich studying the flight of the tiny fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster, in a basement room of the university.

The young scientist was intrigued by the thought of using an engineering approach to investigate a small, flying brain. He hoped his experiments placing flies in wind tunnels and projecting images inside would help him understand how the fly incorporates vision into navigation and wing control. But what he found surprised him.

Determining exactly what is taking place in the fly mind is no easy task. Rohrseitz and his colleagues had to employ the “black box” approach: measure data coming in and out of a closed system to determine what’s inside. He discovered with some precision just how fruit flies control the speed at which they fly based on what they see with their compound eyes. They take in images, which the brain uses to determine how fast the insect is going and adjust from there. In essence, fruit flies act as miniature speed sensors with wings. All with relatively little energy expenditure—just 40 microwatts. If one fly was powered by AA battery, it would last 13 years.

Rohrseitz got to thinking. Couldn’t he mimic the fruit fly system with optics of his own—a camera—and other electronics to build cheap, powerful, efficient, visual speed sensors applicable in everyday life, like in cars?

Today, ViSSee, the company he founded in 2009 together with Valeria Mozzetti, is a CTI Start-up selected for a 1 million Swiss franc CTI Project with university partners working to shrink the sensor down to the size of a watch face. It’s currently about the size of a computer mouse.

Sensors measure so many of our activities: GPS tracks position, gadgets like the Nike+ monitor acceleration, gyroscopes measure inclination, and sensors in some smartphones and computers gauge luminosity in the room and automatically adjust screen brightness. All are moving us toward smarter machines that can react faster that we can, ultimately keeping us safer. But Rohrseitz and Mozzetti found a profound need for another sensor—a portable one for measuring speed and distance.

Current automobile speed sensors measure speed based on the rotation of the wheels. But under two miles per hour, the car can’t actually tell if it’s moving at all, just like it can’t tell how fast it’s going or in which direction it’s headed with locked wheels sliding over black ice.

ViSSee’s sensors mimic the fruit fly’s tricks to provide speed and direction data visually, using very few resources. Imagine this simple example: You’re driving down a long, open highway. The horizon looks static as the miles tick by, but right next to the car, the trees are zipping past you. Fruit flies solve this apparent contradiction by combining information from a large field of view using their compound eyes, with many lenses. ViSSee’s sensors exploit sets of overlapping pixels using a fish-eye lens and parallel electronics. While other visual speed and distance sensors exist, ViSSee’s do the job more efficiently, portably, and for a whole lot less (they cost just a buck each).

ViSSee is a participant of the US Market Entry CAMP at swissnex San Francisco. Rohrseitz and Mozzetti, together with colleague Francesca Garattoni, are working out of the swissnex office to market their sensor to the automotive and other relevant industries in North America. Meanwhile, the company is coming up with some lighter innovations also based on visual systems.

They’ve produced two apps so far that utilize mobile device optics. Masterdaelion lets musicians flip through the digital pages of a score by swiping a foot over an iPhone. AirDrum, created in the company’s first week at swissnex San Francisco, allows iPhone and iPad users to play drums by waving their hands over the screen. On April 7, 2011, ViSSee invites live audiences to test out the app and battle for AirDrum victory.

We think you’ll be SSeeing more of this company.

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