Sony Wins Bid for Ipix Camera Technology Patents

By Kim Hart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 5, 2007

When President Bush gave his 2003 State of the Union address, Ipix captured the room with a panoramic image for online viewers. Movie star Will Smith relied on similar 360-degree photos to go house-hunting in Philadelphia from his California living room. EBay used Ipix technology to display items sold online.

So when the struggling Reston company announced it was auctioning off the patents for its high-resolution camera technology after filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in July, former chief executive Clara Conti wasn't surprised to receive more than 400 inquiries.

What did surprise her, however, was who won the bidding.

Sony purchased 28 patents for $3.6 million -- $1.4 million more than its original offer. Sony, who beat three competitors as an anonymous bidder in the Jan. 19 auction, disclosed its identity last week.

Sony declined to say how it plans to use the patents for cameras, which gained attention by providing video surveillance for such high-profile venues as Windsor Castle and the British Parliament. But Conti said the company "has the financial resources necessary to take the patents to the next level."

Tiny Ipix had a volatile history of trying to bolster its finances enough to stay afloat in the digital photography market. Its gigapixel camera lens captures wrap-around images that show rooms from all angles. Despite earning an early reputation as "the Eastman Kodak of cyberspace," the company's technology never really caught on, leaving creditors and stockholders with little hope of recovering funds.

"Ipix had never been profitable," Conti said. "There were just too many expenses."

Expensive legal battles over patents and accounting costs associated with running a public company ate into profit, hindering Ipix's efforts to keep stock prices stable.

"Had it been a privately owned start-up, the situation could have been different," she said.

Founded in an Oak Ridge, Tenn., research lab in 1986, Ipix grew rapidly in the 1990s with the popularity of virtual tours, mainly for real estate companies and tourist attractions. The company went public in 1999 as the technology bubble peaked, raising $69 million in its initial offering.

When the tech market collapsed, and after Sept. 11, 2001, put a spotlight on security, Ipix moved into video surveillance and touted its cameras as a way to prevent terrorist attacks. Supported by hefty payments from eBay and the real estate industry, Ipix appeared to have survived the dot-com bust. Its annual loss shrunk from $347 million in 2001 to $1 million in 2002.

Then eBay pulled out of the deal, taking 85 percent of Ipix's revenue. Conti, who rose to prominence as chief executive of Reston-based ObjectVideo, was brought on board to lead the company in 2004.

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