(Press Democrat, The (Santa Rosa, CA) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Jan. 20--Debbie Wymer got a surprise gift from her boyfriend at Christmas: ski goggles with a built-in video camera and microphone.
This month she wore them and filmed the downhill action on a two-day Santa Rosa Ski Club outing at the Northstar resort outside Truckee.
"It was fun to share it with all my buddies," said Wymer, a retired insurance claims adjuster from Windsor. After a day on the slopes, the friends gathered round a laptop and viewed their exploits.
"We had some really good laughs," she said.
Wymer got a second surprise when she learned the high-tech goggles were created by a company that moved to Santa Rosa a little over a year ago. Liquid Image, owned by a married couple who each graduated from Santa Rosa High School, makes products for a small but growing consumer category: Point of View, or POV, cameras.
The cameras, which can capture surfing, snorkeling, skydiving and other action-packed activities, experienced sales growth last year of about 70 percent to 4.5 million units, according to research firm IDC.
It estimates sales could grow to nearly 8 million cameras this year as consumers try out the latest wrinkle -- built-in Wi-Fi that allows users to watch the video immediately on their smartphones.
"This is a good time to be a startup" in the POV market, said Chris Chute, IDC's research director for digital imaging, based in Framingham, Mass.
In the age of smartphones, video clips already seem a ubiquitous part of life. But POV cameras add a different dimension because you don't have to hold them -- a good thing when water-skiing, racing dirt bikes or driving high-performance cars on the track. The cameras can be mounted to helmets or attached to moving toys so they capture the user in action.
"A lot of it is the ability to shoot yourself in a particular situation," said Chute. "In a way it's a little narcissistic, but it's a lot of fun."
The New York Times last summer reported that cyclists have even started using the cameras on commutes in case of conflicts with motorists, including one Washington two-wheeler who captured the license plate of a suspected hit-and-run driver.
The undisputed leader in the POV segment is GoPro, with sales of more than 3 million tiny cameras. The company credits its popularity in part to the incredible exposure from countless videos that users have posted on YouTube and Facebook.
Liquid Image found its niche making swim masks and various types of goggles, each with an embedded camera positioned slightly above and in between the wearers' eyes. It since has branched out to mountable cameras. Its products are made in China.
The company was recognized this month at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas with a "Best of Innovations" award for its new Apex HD+ snow goggles. The company bills them as the first goggles with high-definition video and built-in Wi-Fi to connect to smartphones.
"We're staying a step ahead of the people who are copying us," said Melanie Pearson, who owns Liquid Image with her husband Kent.
"We're very inventive people and we have ideas waiting in line," she said.
The Pearsons grew up in Santa Rosa and moved their company back here from Sacramento in 2011 to be closer to family and return to an area they consider home. They're still living near Sacramento but hope to move to Sonoma County this year.
Kent Pearson, 43, Santa Rosa High class of 1987, and Melanie Pearson, 40, class of 1990, both went to study at the Art Center College of Design after college.
A decade ago, they designed their own item, a toy foam football that WalMart carried in its stores. In 2008 they moved away from toys and came out with their first camera, which was mounted in a yellow snorkeling mask. Priced under $100, "it was a complete shoe-in for all of the gift guides," Melanie Pearson said.
The camera mask was featured on NBC's "Today" show and appeared in an episode each of "Glee" and "Fear Factor."
Liquid Image later added camera goggles for snow and off-road sports, plus the mountable Ego camera. Prices range from $49 for a snorkeling mask to $400 for the top-of-the-line Apex snow goggles.
Sales in 2008 hit $2 million. By last year that figure had grown to $15 million.
The company employs 20 people, divided between Santa Rosa and Asia.
Melanie Pearson said the couple's original idea for a camera mask worked partly because of the advances in technology.
"Everything had gotten small enough and affordable enough that this was a possibility," she said.
Justin Liddell, a Windsor High senior who has used both GoPro and Liquid Image cameras, said the versatility of POV equipment is aided by simple editing software loaded on most computers.
"They've made it super good for the average consumer," said Liddell, who has his own film production company and has sold motorcycle racing video shot with a GoPro camera for an ad to a tire company.
With the addition of Wi-Fi, the camera makers have provided "the last piece of the puzzle" for a complete experience, said Chute of IDC. Without it, users typically needed to wait until they could sit at a computer to see their videos.
With Liquid Image's new Wi-Fi snow goggles, skiers can pull out their smartphones and watch their latest run while they're riding back up the lift. Or another person can view live video when the phone and camera are within 100 meters of one another.
"I can watch from somebody else's point of view as they're doing it," said Melanie Pearson.
Wymer isn't sure what she's going to do with all the ski videos that she expects to make. But she's impressed with the camera.
"This is amazing what it does and how easy it is and the quality of the pictures," she said, "if I can remember not to look down."
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