Almost Famous: Harold Smith IV of OWLE

A feature wherein All Things Digital looks at up-and-coming and innovative start-ups you should know about.

This week: We we had a Skype visit with, asked some questions of and gathered a few pertinent stats about Harold Smith IV and OWLE: Optical Widget for Life Enhancement, a superbeefy accessory for the Apple (AAPL) iPhone that attempts to bridge the gap between a camera on a phone and professional camcorder.


Who: Harold Smith IV

What: CEO and co-founder

Why: After early prototypes and iPhoneDevCamp, Harold patented a product that uses off-the-shelf lenses and microphones coupled with nearly a pound of custom-machined aluminum to stabilize and supercharge videos taken by iPhones. Harold and his team just finished churning out the first 500 OWLE Bubos (Bubo is the model name), which shipped at the end of 2009.

Where: (Web site); @wantowle (Twitter); Scottsdale, Ariz. (analog place)

Who else: A Japanese company called Factron makes a case, called Quattro, with detachable lenses, although similarities are thin. The OWLE is a one-of-a-kind product at this point, but Harold sees competition on the horizon as video apps improve.

Five Stats You Won’t Find in His Facebook Profile

Worst Job: I worked at Taste of Chicago, a hot dog shop. I guess it was my first experience in the truth of what goes on behind the scenes at a restaurant. This one day, I spilled a bucket of diced tomatoes on the floor, and my manager just kicked them back into the bucket and put it back on the counter. I didn’t last very long.

Has a Geek Crush On: Jim Jannard, he founded Red, the digital cinema camera company. Basically, he just saw a need and a product that didn’t exist yet and he just made it. That’s basically what we are trying to do.

Gadget of the Moment: You are gonna laugh because it’s so simple. I got this iPhone battery from Tumi for Christmas. It’s great. It holds five full charges and recharges the phone in two hours.

Wishes There Was an App For: Well, I really want to have more control over iPhone video. There’s no reason why we can’t have control over white balance, selective focus and everything. I mean, it’s all digital, and we have the tools. Truthfully though, I’d really love to play Halo on my iPhone in augmented reality. That’s coming.

Fails At: Spelling and grammar. I rely on the Internet to fix my mistakes. I think it would be the greatest prank ever to turn off all the spelling and grammar check in the world for one day to see how we all really type.

Bio in 140 Characters

Split his early years between Scottsdale and San Francisco. Couldn’t decide on a college major. Sold software, sold vitamins, invented OWLE.

The Five Questions

Give us the short history of how you decided the iPhone needed to be better at shooting video.

It all started with my day job at Natural Partners, a vitamin distribution company. They wanted to use video to reach customers in a way that competitors weren’t, so they started doing a Web TV show. We got into broadcasting trade shows live and wanted a mobile camera. The Nokia (NOK) N95 had just come out and Qik [online mobile streaming service] was around. I ended up building a rig to make live broadcasting with the N95 better. It just looked awful, all brackets and tape. When the iPhone came out, it was so thin and nice, I wanted to build something nice for it. That was the first OWLE prototype.

What exactly is the OWLE now?

Well, the OWLE Bubo is the current model. It is a custom-machined piece of billet aluminum, anodized black. We tried a lot of different sizes, and we settled on a version that weighs 0.9 pounds. You want it to be heavy enough so that you get stability without being a pain to carry around. The second component is the lens that it comes with. The body itself has 37-millimeter threading, the largest standard when it comes to camcorder lenses. These are things you can get at Best Buy (BBY) as add-ons for your camcorder. The lens even comes in two parts, and the first stage can be used alone for close-up shots. It also has an add-on microphone from Vericorder, so that you can hear what’s going on in front of the phone while it’s in the OWLE. You get the whole thing for $129.99.

Where do you hope people will be seeing these for sale in the future?

Well, we just launched a new Web site last week, and we are already filling orders from that. Right now, we are based out of a distribution center in Scottsdale, so we are filling orders ourselves today, but we could ramp up very quickly to larger order fulfillment. In my last job, I was running a $6-million-a-year e-commerce site, so when we are ready to ramp up, that’s my world, I’m ready for that.

We just struck a deal with, so you can buy an OWLE there right now. Nothing is official yet, but we are currently in talks with Apple about selling OWLEs in Apple stores. That would be the dream location, I guess.

Picard or Kirk?

Picard for sure, I mean that’s what I grew up on–that was the touchscreen stuff. That was my first real exposure to touchscreens and HD video. It wasn’t shot in HD or anything, but Captain Picard would stand there, and there was that huge screen in full quality with a Klingon on it or something. We were there watching it on our little CRT televisions. That was the future. That’s what I thought when I first got an iPhone. I mean, it was a tricorder, that was “Star Trek.” I’m still waiting for my transporter.

What’s the OWLE story that beats them all?

Well, we just got this video from our marketing team–I’m not sure we’re going to release it. It’s basically of the team taking an OWLE Bubo with an iPhone inside and throwing it off a building like five times. The iPhone was, like, totally fine, but we don’t want to endorse people chucking their iPhones like that.

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