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Hillman to focus on development, leaves CEO role at GigaPan

| Friday, Feb. 22, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
Jasmine Goldband
A zoomed in screen shot from a GigaPan image taken of students walking across Carnegie Mellon University campus Thursday, February, 21, 2013. GigaPan technology was developed at Carnegie Mellon University’s campus in Oakland. Investor Henry Hillman Jr., who just stepped down as interim CEO, founded the company with CMU scientists Illah Nourbakhsh and Randy Sargent. Fully interactive GigaPan at Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review
The GigaPan Epic 100 (from left to right) GigaPan Epic Pro, and the GigaPan Epic robotic camera mounts help user's capture extreme high-resolution panoramic images. Digital cameras attach to the robotic mounts which are used to record a series of individual images that are then 'stiched' together using software to create one dynamic 'gigapixel' image. (submitted)

Venture capitalist Henry Hillman Jr. has bowed out as GigaPan Systems' interim chief executive just as the startup known for enabling photographers to capture panoramic images embarks on its next phase of growth.

Hillman, whose parents are Pittsburgh industrialist and philanthropist Henry Hillman and his wife, Elsie, founded the company in 2008 with two research scientists after becoming intrigued with the technology during a visit to a Carnegie Mellon University laboratory.

Under his leadership GigaPan, based in Portland, where Hillman has lived since the 1970s, has attracted users ranging from Major League Baseball, the National Park Service and major media companies to amateur photo buffs who use the company's equipment and software to build super wide-angle shots.

GigaPan in recent weeks hired a new CEO, Josh Friedman, who has a history of working with startups and previously an executive with music licensing company Rumblefish.

The company also introduced printing and mobile capabilities, and plans to add other paid services this year such as a 360-degree viewer, games, tours and hotspots features. There also will be a variety of paid subscriptions for professional photographers and businesses that need advanced tools, but a basic, no-cost level will remain.

“The possibilities are almost endless,” said Hillman, who remains on the board of directors and said he'll continue to work on developing products.

“You can make these pictures with your iPhone now” and share them easily, he said, “and as phones take over the camera world, we'll just start seeing uses all over.”

GigaPan stands for gigapixel panorama ­—­ a term referring to billions of pixels, the smallest pieces of an image that appears on a TV or computer screen.

The privately held company doesn't disclose revenue but said to date, it's made money mainly by selling equipment such as robotic camera mounts and the computer software that combines a series of images into one high-quality broad view.

The company, with technology created originally for NASA's Mars Curiosity Rover, employs 25 people, including three software engineers in Pittsburgh. By expanding its user base from scientists and educators to a variety of businesses and professional photographers, it's grown significantly in recent years.

GigaPan now has 50,000 registered members on its website, and about 100,000 “gigapixel” images uploaded there. Its Epic series equipment and software is sold by 117 partners in 42 countries. Professional photographers, plus sports and event, travel and tourism and media and advertising companies are the four largest categories of users.

“It automates what had been a manual process,” said Ellis Vener, an Atlanta photographer and member of the Professional Photographers of America who has used GigaPan.

“There are some good things about it,” said Doug Segal, an owner of Panoramic Images, a Chicago company that represents 250 photographers who shoot wide-reaching scenes, He admires GigaPan's steps to advance high-resolution photography.

Some examples of Gigapan's use:

• National Geographic gives visitors to its website a 360-degree view inside a Space Shuttle, and allows them to scale the Eagle's Nest rock face in Saudi Arabia and get close to each ancient carving of a bird or animal.

• Major League Baseball provides a series of images called TagOramic that allow viewers to zoom in on themselves and friends and create Facebook tags. One Pirates game against the Chicago Cubs is featured, showing the full stands at PNC Park. That image combines 300 overlapping photos taken over a 15-minute span, with 25 photos across and 12 down.

GigaPan photography also has captured crowds at both of President Obama's inaugurations, with the 2009 event the company's most viewed image to date.

Hillman's background is nearly as wide as one of GigaPan's shots.

Like his father, who ranks at No. 218 on Forbes 400 list of wealthiest Americans, with a listed net worth of $2.2 billion, the younger Hillman is active in philanthropic projects. He's also a noted glass sculptor and has bought and sold several companies in recent decades, including athletic shoe brand Avia which was sold to Reebok.

Hillman said transitioning out of GigaPan's day-to-day operations gives him more time to devote to Intellibot Robotics LLC, his Portland-based company that makes robotic commercial floor scrubbers and vacuums.

Illah Nourbakhsh, a professor at CMU's Robotics Institute who helped found Gigapan, said Hillman was intrigued with the technology.

“The company is ready for that transition from a founder-led company to a faster growing one that needs a professional CEO,” he said. “It had reached that time where it needed to grow commercially, to scale properly.”

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