A 360-Degree Pied Piper

Robert Kwasny wants to sell the world on a camera that captures everything in all directions all the time

When unsuspecting bystanders see Robert Kwasny working on the beach in his mobile video production studio, many of them initially believe he's disabled. The studio, after all, is mounted on a motorized wheelchair. "A lot of people think that I must be Stephen Hawking's first cousin," says Kwasny, referring to the famous physicist. "I've had a lot of discussions about disability since I've been on the road."

Kwasny's arms and legs work fine. It's just that, since escaping the office life to pursue his dream, he's had the luxury to pick and choose where he sets up shop. The beach is his first choice, and he's been hanging out near the surf in Hollywood the past few weeks, working in the studio that he calls Becky. Often shirtless, in jeans or shorts, and wearing New Balance running shoes, the affable techno-junkie never fails to attract the curious, and he happily explains what he's doing to anyone who asks.

He does share something with Hawking other than an attention-grabbing, gadget-packed wheelchair. The 48-year-old Kwasny believes he's an evangelist of the future. The former computer salesman and software developer from Michigan landed in Broward County in mid-December on a stop in what he calls his "world tour." His mission: to sell the concept of 360-degree video around the globe. His goal: to become ridiculously rich and reshape the Hollywood movie industry in the process.

It may sound a bit grandiose, but he may be on to something. Since arriving in Fort Lauderdale, he has produced several commercial videos for companies that sell their boats on the Internet. A little work goes a long way: Kwasny charges $950 an hour for his services. He won't reveal exactly how much he's made so far, but he says it's far from the $200,000 he and three others have invested in his business, Absolute360, since he started it nearly two years ago.

The technology isn't new; it's been around a few years. Several real estate companies and hotel chains offer 360-degree "virtual tours" of houses and rooms. ESPN and NBA games have been broadcast in 360 over the Internet, and there is even a White House tour that uses the technology. Los Angeles-based Be Here Technologies was the first to mass-produce a high-resolution camera that is available to the public, and another company, Massachusetts-based RemoteReality, recently unveiled its version.

Kwasny is the Johnny Appleseed of the Be Here device, bringing it to the populace, face to face. The never-married entrepreneur totally uprooted his life this past November to travel the country in what he calls the "Silver Tube" -- a computer-loaded, satellite-equipped motor home he bought in Oregon. To bolster his production business, Kwasny has signed an agreement with Be Here to sell the 360 camera, and he also plans to train people in its use.

"The biggest challenge for us is getting people to believe in it," says Dan Patton, Be Here's vice president of product management. "Robert Kwasny has taken the whole system to the next level. He is one of the first with the wherewithal to understand the technology, and he's built a unique product. He's delivering great services."

The camera, which Kwasny bought in 2000, looks something like a silver egg in a glass cup -- a design that makes it "capture everything in all directions all the time" -- Kwasny's catch phrase. The high-resolution model, which Kwasny uses, now costs $10,000 (down from the $34,000 that Kwasny paid for his first one in 2000), and a handheld version goes for $4000.

To understand the viewing experience, imagine you are on the Internet watching a video of a house for sale. With 360-viewing, you can pan around the room as if you were holding the camera and revolving. With a mouse or the keys on your computer terminal, you can stop where you want to, perhaps at the kitchen sink, and even zoom in for a better look.

When Kwasny learned about 360-degree technology two years ago, he says he knew "at a cellular level" that this was the next step in the evolutionary ladder of both advertising and entertainment. "It was, "Go west, young man,'" he recalls. "Plastics... computers... it just made sense that 360 video was next and it wouldn't be going away anytime soon."

Kwasny is an old hand in the computer age. Since building his first rudimentary computer in 1978 from a mail-order kit, he has been independently selling the machines and developing software. But there were serious problems with 360-degree production. Because the camera films almost everything around it, it's difficult for producers to hide lighting, cables, and sound equipment. Kwasny, with his wheelchair studio, set out to solve those problems.

Kwasny's Becky, which he built in the summer of 2000 and named after a Barbie doll that comes with a wheelchair, is a mobile video lab that begins with an $11,000 wheelchair and can run on batteries. On an attached desktop is an IBM laptop, where he edits the digital video. Above everything is the camera, which is perched on a tempered aluminum frame. Under the camera is a quartz lighting panel and some automotive high beams to illuminate the action. For sound, there is a four-channel mixer with pre-amps that includes special effects and music. When Kwasny videotapes from Becky, the studio is neatly concealed from the viewer. And Kwasny can burn his video onto CD or stream it onto the Internet.

After building Becky, Kwasny paid $30,000 for the motor home and hit the road in November. Since, he's logged 25,000 miles and traveled to California, Las Vegas, Atlanta, and Savannah before arriving in South Florida. He's also set up a Website to promote his company (www.absolute360.com).

Once here, he hit the yacht industry. Kwasny brought Becky around to several boat brokers located on the Intracoastal Waterway near the 17th Street Causeway and says he has since been hired by several of them to produce Internet ads. Though he won't name most of his clients, he allowed New Times to come along for a meeting with Bob McKee, general manager of National Liquidators,the nation's largest boat repossession company. The firm, located at the Jackson Marine Center on the New River just west of Interstate 95, hired Kwasny to film two vessels.

"He was just out there running around in his chair and doing what he does," says McKee, who'd never seen 360 before. "I was amazed -- at first, I thought he was taking pictures of the sky with that thing."

Each month, National Liquidators sells 50 to 60 boats that range in price from $1500 to $10 million, McKee says. Before hiring Kwasny, he had used only still shots to display his boats on the Internet, where the company draws in 80 percent of its customers. "We were behind the times," he says. "With 360, you can see the whole damn boat instead of just a little part of it. What makes 360 amazing to me is, it's like you're actually looking at the vessel. It's not like a picture somebody made. It's like you make your own pictures."

While such reactions drive Kwasny forward, the question persists: Is Kwasny on a quixotic journey, or can he really be successful? "It sounds like an interesting idea," says producer Chuck Connors, of You Are There Productions, the only Broward company that currently offers 360-degree video services (sans Becky, of course). "As a one-man band, he may be able to make a living at it."

Robert Sclafani, head of one of South Florida's largest production companies, avers that Kwasny has a "novel idea" but adds a note of reality. "If he has the sales ability and the design know-how, he might very well be successful," says Sclafani, president of Multi Image Group, which doesn't offer 360. "But it all depends on how much revenue he brings in by the end of the year."

Kwasny says he's not consumed by the idea of making short-term bucks. He's focused on the long run -- which ends with California and the movie industry. He's planning to hit the road again this week and drive cross-country, with stops in New Orleans, Las Vegas, and eventually California, where he'll try to win over directors and actors with Becky and his sample footage. He's also designing Becky II, which he says will be better in every way than the original. Ultimately, he expects to make movie shorts to be sold to Internet providers. "It's going to be endless," he says of 360 degree's potential. "I want to be a person that helps to usher in the new age. And I've found that showing up is everything. I show up."

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