A typical GoPro camera launch is much how you'd imagine it to be: Extreme sport athletes perform for the press at a beautiful outdoorsy location. But where I am today is not a typical GoPro launch. That won't happen for a few weeks yet, when CEO and founder Nick Woodman will present the company's much-anticipated Karma drone to the world.
Karma's reveal will be the climax to one of GoPro's most scrutinized business moves yet. After multiple delays and much investor speculation, it's important that GoPro get this one right. Will Karma silence GoPro's doubters, or give them more to talk about? Engadget spent some time behind the scenes during Karma's crucial final stages to find out.
That's why I'm on a farm in northern California surrounded, by dirt, tractors and a lone porta-potty. A team of GoPro employees is working under gazebos, fiddling with wires poking out of stripped-down prototypes. Concentrated faces stare into laptops as they spew out technical readouts. Four or five quadcopters are flying in the overcast sky at any one time, often more. This is where Karma is being refined and -- literally -- field-tested ahead of its public reveal.
The atmosphere is upbeat, but serious. There's work to be done. The assorted drones, controllers and batteries dotted around aren't final hardware. Each has a version number scribbled in magic marker. The low hum of spinning rotors drowns out the nearby traffic from the Pacific Coast Highway. There's little in the way of glamour here, until a lemon yellow vintage Porsche roars up a dirt track and into the field we're standing in.
GoPro's charismatic CEO, Nick Woodman, unfolds from the car. It's a 1970 Carrera tweaked to match the much rarer '73 GT. "They're basically the same," he tells me, after greeting his staff with smiles and high-fives. It's been a tough year for the company. It started with layoffs in January, and investors have made much about the sinking share price -- a narrative that Woodman is eager to put to rest. But if he is nervous about the big launch just around the corner, you wouldn't know it.
Karma's success isn't just about pleasing shareholders. This is the first major GoPro launch that isn't a camera (although the company revealed a pair of those this week too). That means the company is wading into unknown waters. Launching mainstream products is risky even when you have years of experience -- just ask Apple and Samsung. Totally new ventures multiply those challenges.
So when I ask him why they made a drone, his first answer is predictably on message: "We're always looking for new ways to help users capture new perspectives." But Woodman's a little more relaxed once he actually shows me the Karma bundle for the first time. "We wanted to develop an experience that people would be blown away by," he says. "After you're done being blown away, we want people to think, 'Of course this is how GoPro did it.'"
By now the secret is out. Karma isn't just a drone. It's a package that includes a quadcopter, a stabilizing handheld grip (that's also wearable) plus a touchscreen controller and a backpack (that doubles as a launchpad!). The camera stabilizer is removable and can be placed into the handheld, a party trick that makes Karma a ground-based stabilizer as well as a drone. Note that rival DJI also makes drones (obviously) and handheld stabilizers, but sells them as individual products.
Gallery: GoPro Karma: Behind the scenes | 18 Photos
Gallery: GoPro Karma: Behind the scenes | 18 Photos
Most people were expecting a drone, but GoPro actually developed Karma as a complete stabilization system. That's why there's a teaser video shot in a library that would have been near-impossible with just a quadcopter. Karma isn't just about getting cameras up in the sky -- it's about improving self-shot video for everyone. A much bigger strategy than just adding a radio-controlled accessory to the line up. One that will pay dividends for GoPro's image every time a silky-smooth video gets uploaded to the internet.
Despite the promise of better video for shooters and viewers alike, the biggest surprise with Karma might be the price. The above bundle and a GoPro Hero5 Black costs $1,099 ($999 if you opt for the Hero5 Session; $799 if you bring your own). That's not exactly cheap, but the cameras alone account for a sizable chunk of that. If you want a 4K DJI Phantom 3 or 4, things start at $999. Add an Osmo Mobile and you're already at $1,300. Woodman tells me that after the fumbled launch of the Hero4 Session, "We did not want to make the same mistake with Karma. And so that's why we took the extra time to make it an incredible experience and price it right so that we don't have any question marks hanging over it."
For a company associated with daredevil stunts and adrenaline, it feels like GoPro is playing it relatively safe with Karma. The drone eschews tricks like follow mode and obstacle avoidance, opting instead for a slick user experience. There's a clever "Passenger" app that will let friends control the camera via a smartphone while you fly, or the boring yet practical placement of the camera, which ensures propellers don't get in your video. GoPro is hoping to appeal to consumers used to box-ready, glossy products -- not the budget-conscious or hobby RC crowd. It's a market DJI has courted with the successful Phantom series, but GoPro has specifically leveraged its experience with non-pilots to build something it thinks they'd want.
Flying Karma is simple. The controller was deliberately designed to handle like on a game console, so it feels natural. There are no dorky antennas, no protruding clip for your phone, no WiFi networks to join. Instead there's a bright 5-inch, 720p touchscreen baked into the clamshell design. Open it and a message greets you: "Swipe up to fly." It feels more like checking your email than running through a pre-flight rain dance.
I swipe up, as instructed, and seconds later I'm in the air. There are almost no dials or widgets on the screen; no pilot terminology (no "aileron," "yaw" or "pitch"). Every now and then a calm voice delivers instructions and alerts -- something that on other quadcopters usually involves a nagging beep or a throbbing red light. Grant McCauley, UX lead for the controller, tells me why. "The last thing you want when you're having an 'oh shit' moment or you've lost the drone is a siren like something that's going to self destruct." You'll get about 20 minutes in the air per charge, and batteries recharge in an hour.
Woodman explains why they wanted to avoid the usual "drone" experience: "We've been consistently guilty of building products for ourselves that we really want, and that's worked really well over the years." Basically GoPro is its own customer. The staff I speak with don't want to think about flying in Mode 1 or Mode 2, or care what a flight controller is. They're probably cool with putting on a backpack and getting on with their snowboarding.