How the Lily Camera Took the Internet by Storm, Then Imploded

Back in 2014, a pair of Berkeley alumni, Antoine Balaresque and Henry Bradlow, had an idea for a camera-equipped drone that had the potential to change the entire drone market. The Lily Camera, “built” by Lily Robotics, was advertised as a dead-simple device that anyone could operate, mostly because it wouldn’t depend on anything as childish as a human pilot. Instead, the Lily Camera was a device you could toss into the air. It would then follow its owner through a combination of image recognition and a bracelet GPS the owner wore on their wrist.

It’s easy to see why the device grabbed the attention of drone enthusiasts, with more than 60,000 pre-orders in 2015. Watch the Lily Camera video below that was shown to potential investors and the public alike. In the video, the drone looks amazing. It captures crisp, clear video; it flies back to the owner when flung off a bridge; and it lands in your hand when you stretch it out. With a waterproof case for the GPS wristband and a pre-order price of $ 499 (compared with a $ 999 launch price), it looks like a drone that clearly delivers on the “it just works” promise Silicon Valley has been promising for the last few decades.

Now Wiredhas an inside look at what caused the company to first delay its hardware for nearly a year, before ultimately filing bankruptcy on the same day it was hit by a lawsuit filed by the District Attorney of San Francisco over the false and misleading advertising it had used to promote its vaporware product.

The problem, in a nutshell, was that Balaresque and Bradlow spent money in all the wrong places, underestimated the difficulty of building both the hardware and the software required to turn the Lily Camera into a product, and — crucially — used a vastly more expensive DJI Inspire to gather their footage rather than the Lily Camera, as they had claimed on stage. More damningly, they trained their director to mimic the way Lily shots would look, to prevent end-users from realizing the footage was fake, while simultaneously worrying about what would happen if people found out. Here’s Wired:

Early on in the filming process, Balaresque emailed Brad Kremer at CMI Productions, the company Lily Robotics hired to produce the video, about his concerns that a ‘lens geek’ would study the film up close and see that the shots were clearly from an Inspire. ‘But I am just speculating here,’ he wrote. ‘I don’t know much about lenses but I think we should be extremely careful if we decide to lie publicly.’

Because Balaresque and Bradlow put the final video together themselves, even the people who worked to shoot the original film aren’t sure if any of the footage captured is shot from a Lily at all. Both cameras were used in the same process.

But at the same time, not all the employees felt the same way about how things played out. Some defended their former employers as a pair of hard-working guys who made novice mistakes and didn’t listen to the people who were giving them advice, as opposed to being thieving jerks who deliberately set out to defraud people. On at least one point, Wired implies that Lily Robotics was fundamentally honest — it appears to have kept its pledge not to have used pre-order cash to run its company, instead reserving that fund for users who requested refunds.

All the same, this story is a potent reminder that there’s no substitute for engineering expertise and hard work. The Lily Camera was marketed to credulous investors and drone enthusiasts as an amazing advance at a time when drones were just taking off in the mass market. All the beautiful video in the world is ultimately worthless if you can’t deliver a product — and Lily Robotics couldn’t.

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