If you find yourself being followed by a video camera, odds are good you're a reality TV star, the center of a tabloid scandal, or both.

Then again, if that camera happens to be airborne and following a pocket-sized tracking device in your pocket, you may be a customer of a unique company called Lily Camera.

Conceived in the basement of a UC Berkeley robotics lab, the device -- billed as “the world’s first throw-and-shoot camera” -- recently became available for pre-ordering at Lily.Camera. "It has become a worldwide phenomenon overnight,” says company cofounder and CEO Antoine Balaresque. "We didn't know it would be so successful." In fact, while Balaresque won't reveal actual figures, he says that Lily Camera has seen pre-orders come in from around the world.  

Part of that success, Balaresque says, owes to the use of www.lily.camera as the company's website name. "It has really contributed to the engagement we’ve had, which has been tremendous,” he says. It's important to the company, Balaresque says, to signal to customers that its product isn’t simply a drone capable of carrying a camera to new heights (in this case a maximum of about 50 feet) but “to emphasize the fact that we are building a camera that happens to be flying. As soon as we had the option to purchase a dot-camera domain address, we did. A new company with a new product should have a website name like this. People have responded in a strong way, so clearly it has worked out really well.”

Another important part of that brand and marketing strategy is to show the product in action. A promotional video that shows the autonomous eye-in-the-sky trailing a snowboarder helped spread the word, but the company decided that there was room for improvement, so it re-shot it earlier this year. “We wanted to make sure that it was really polished,” says Balaresque. “So we put everything on hold and we did it again. These are things that can make a huge difference. We paid a lot of money for that video!”

The company’s initial funding comes partly from consumers who order -- and pay upfront for -- the camera, at a price that began at $499, has risen to $599 and will eventually land at $999 when delivery begins. Balaresque and his cofounder, CTO Henry Bradlow, have also raised about $1 million from investors. The pair began working on the device two years ago, prompted by Balaresque’s observation that his mother didn’t appear in any photos of the family’s recent vacation. “She was too busy taking the pictures,” he says.

What’s kept the two 24-year-olds busy is “putting together all of the pieces: the battery technology, controls, tracking algorithm,” says Balaresque. “We didn’t invent any of those, but we’re very innovative. We put everything together in a special package.” That package, kept aloft by four whirring propellers, can fly at speeds of up to 25 miles an hour and can take video, still photos, and also record audio. Weighing in at under three pounds, the waterproof Lily Camera relies on GPS and computer vision to follow its user, guided by a tracking device that relays its subject’s position, distance, and speed. Its battery can power 20 minutes of flight for every two-hour charge.

“We want to change the way people use cameras, from professional filmmakers to amateurs, who will no longer have to run around holding a selfie stick so they can be included in their photographic memories,” says Balaresque.  “We knew we could build it. We worked on it full-time because there was nothing else for us to do that was as much fun.”

As for the company's domain name, Balaresque is adamant: "We love Lily.Camera. A lot of people have told us that it’s a cool website name to have. They can see that everything in our brand and marketing plan is well thought-out.”

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Published on: Mar 1, 2016