We talked to Radu. B. Rusu of Fyusion about its new 3D visual format and COVID-19.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Radu. B. Rusu: We’re surviving, thanks for asking. These are unprecedented times for everyone, and nobody knows what to do precisely other than focus on the things that matter in their lives at this point: family and work. Like everyone, we’ve had ups and downs over the last 8 months or so, but we powered through. What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger!
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded Fyusion.
Radu. B. Rusu: I come from the mountains of Transylvania, Romania, and had a long detour through Germany to do my graduate work before landing in California about 10 years ago. It’s been an exciting journey, and I had the pleasure to meet a lot of smart and humble people along the way who shaped the way I function and think, for which I am very grateful. As someone who liked to play games and code at a young age, I was the exact opposite of my father, an economist, who dealt with issues related to business development and numbers. We used to laugh that I’d never care about such issues and that I’ll be a geek forever.
I started as an engineer, evolved into a researcher, and then became a founder/CEO. Funny how things turn around; I guess the joke is on me.
Starting a company typically comes from a pain point, and that’s what I experienced as well. I met the other three cofounders of Fyusion at Willow Garage, and we realized we were at a point in our society where the impact of solving problems through artificial intelligence and visual imagery was more and more profound. Yet, we were limiting ourselves to providing the best possible solutions due to subpar visual data—i.e., 2D images. We should not use 2D images to build machine learning models to solve critical problems.
It’s almost always better to identify problems first and then find ways to solve them efficiently and accurately. This is not a new concept, and fields such as robotics have been dealing with it for a long time, where teams tasked to solve a particular hard problem will build complete hardware and software systems from scratch in order to achieve their goals.
My cofounders and I set out to address this issue and develop a new 3D format.
How does Fyusion innovate?
Radu. B. Rusu: Fyusion developed and patented a new 3D visual format called a .fyuse, and it sits alongside a photo, which is a flat 2D projection of the world onto an array of pixels, and a video, which is a series of photos recorded at a certain speed. Our .fyuse format records spatial information renders it using light-field technologies and is able to extract much more accurate information, such as tiny damages on a vehicle in an inspection application. Most importantly, we do all this with software, and use commodity cameras and off-the-shelf hardware such as smartphones, thus making our whole approach incredibly scalable.
By applying AI to .fyuse images, we are able to serve a wide array of use cases, from e-commerce applications that leverage the lifelike qualities of 3D images to business applications that analyze 3D images, such as automotive inspections.
How does the coronavirus pandemic affect your business, and how are you coping?
Radu. B. Rusu: We are in one of the maybe three different categories of companies that have NOT been negatively affected by the pandemic. Since people are not able to travel and/or allowed to visit car dealerships, for example, they rely more on digital information. We have seen a surge of interest. In automotive for instance, showing a .fyuse together with an accurate vehicle condition report extracted from it provides not just a substitute for a real-world visit, but from a visual perspective an experience that’s better in some ways than being there in person.
Naturally, we have to weigh the other side of things which is that we’re all working from home during the pandemic, and we’re dealing with work, personal life issues, and other family-related things, all as one big cocktail, and that is affecting us whether we’d like to admit it or not. Sometimes it’s great as you get increased focus from that “one hour of uninterrupted work” while your children are doing homework or playing, but at times it obviously gets chaotic for some of us. So far, our company’s productivity has actually increased. But nobody knows the precise long-term effects of social isolation and how the big picture will look in 6 months. I know we all crave actual face-to-face contact, and thus far video calls have not satisfied that craving.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Radu. B. Rusu: We’ve been very fortunate thus far. Given our company’s business, we have expanded over the past year. We’ve retained 100% of our personnel and even hired new people throughout the pandemic, while other companies had to furlough large amounts of personnel. Given our “we build software” mantra, and the fact you can do this remotely, from any corner of the world, we’ve only experienced minimal disruptions to our day-to-day operations.
One lesson we learned is that those 10- to15-minute breaks between meetings when we were all in the office were really important. Even just a “let me go get some tea or coffee before we start this next meeting” type of a mental break. Once we learned and established that, things seemed to run more smoothly.
How do you deal with stress and anxiety? How do you project yourself and Fyusion in the future?
Radu. B. Rusu: It’s difficult to respond because several things that were stressful and were creating anxiety in the past are gone, but only to be replaced with OTHER things that are creating stress and anxiety…differently. For example, your children are with you 24/7 now, so you never have to worry about your 2-year old falling at school and injuring herself and you being called while in a meeting to rush over to the daycare and take her to the hospital. But now, you’re parent, teacher, and “doctor” at the same time for them. However, the fact that you’re still busy during workdays and in important meetings, and you see them getting bored and put them in front of cartoons for an hour, creates other types of stress and guilt, which accumulate over time, and impacts your overall mental health. I am obviously describing a personal situation being the father of two young children, and other people are dealing with their own unique issues which are no less difficult.
We try our best to connect as much as we can with work colleagues and friends, and just communicate and rely on each other as much as we can given the circumstances, and as stated before, be optimistic that we are very resilient as a species and as a team in particular. That better days are ahead of us. The future is uncertain, but if we’re focused on things that matter, and find ways to cope with this unprecedented situation, I can see us coming out of this with more empathy, more EQ, more resilience in the face of adversity, and overall stronger as individuals and as a team.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Radu. B. Rusu: We compete with different companies in each of our product areas. Our products typically take old-school 2D functions and deliver them in 3D. Our competitors are usually older companies who are struggling to catch up. More often than not, we’re competing against the status quo.
Like society as a whole, our customers are facing an extraordinary amount of stress and change. We have to make it as easy as possible for them to modernize because they don’t have a lot of bandwidth right now but know they need solutions like ours that provide something more interactive than old-fashioned photography. From the founding of our company, we’ve been all about innovation in computer vision—we’ve compiled over 150 patents to support our products. But in 2020, we became a customer service company that happens to deliver innovative computer vision products.
Your final thoughts?
Radu. B. Rusu: As we’ve gained EQ as individuals, we’ve also gained EQ as a company.
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