3VR Sought to be Google for Surveillance Video

Starting his video analytics company 3VR took about twice as long and twice as much money as the company’s founder and chairman, Stephen Russell, thought it would.

The company got its start in Russell’s three-story loft in downtown San Francisco in 2002. For the first year, an assortment of Russell’s family, friends and former colleagues, as well as wizards in math, computer science and even astrophysics would show up at his front door and head downstairs to a makeshift cluster of computers and desks in his basement.

“One developer was an early riser, and every day he’d ring my doorbell at a little before seven,” Russell said. “I’d generally answer the door with a pot of coffee in my hand, and we’d start the day.”

A close call on Sept. 11, 2001, had inspired him to think about how recent advances in video indexing and search might be used to improve surveillance and security.

“I had a 9 a.m. meeting at 1 Liberty Plaza, next to the World Trade Center, scheduled on September 11, and my return flight to San Francisco the next day was United 93,” Russell said. “Through a fluke, a personal issue caused me to cancel the trip last minute. I was far away when the towers fell, but the event still had a profound effect on me.”

Russell had also been mulling over the fact that innovations in consumer video technology, such as Tivo, didn’t translate into the security surveillance sector. “These incredibly expensive enterprise (surveillance video) setups seemed arcane and almost unusable by comparison,” he said.

He was also curious to test out a more philosophical proposition: "One of the reasons I started 3VR was to test the notion that a great idea could move minds and markets even in a hyper-conservative and battened-down market like security,” he said. “I count 3VR as validation and victory for optimists and innovators.”

3VR’s co-founders included Tim Ross, a successful valley marketing executive and consultant, and Robert Vallone, who had previously run engineering at TiVo.

“3VR didn’t become a ‘real’ company until Tim and Bob joined the team,” Russell said. “The company in those days wasn’t even called 3VR. We went by the name Edison Carter, a name I borrowed from a character in an ’80s television show called Max Headroom.”   

They later decided on a more original name, 3VR, to stand for both the group members’ initials – three founders with V or R names – and for “third-generation video recorder.”

Once they had the technology in place, they set off trying to woo their first customers with some spectacular demos.

“We would track people on the street in this San Francisco neighborhood,” Russell said. “Through our searchable application, we learned who all the drug dealers, drug addicts and homeless in that neighborhood were. We could tell you information about every one of them—where they went, who they associated with, everything. I can still walk through that neighborhood and identify most of the people.”

Investors and customers were excited by the demos, and 3VR took off.

In 2009, the company acquired Acrimin Inc., which owned Crimedex, a system created by former SWAT team leader Jim Gator Hudson that sought to help police share information on suspects to collaborate on solving crimes.

Russell said Crimedex fit right in with 3VR’s mission of bringing structure to a bastion of unstructured data, and that it would enable them to share policing information, collaborate and solve crimes faster.

“If we were building Google for surveillance,” Russell said, “[Hudson] was building Facebook for bad guys.”

It helped the company develop direct relationships with banks and retailers, and brought additional value to 3VR’s surveillance customers.

Today, Russell has transitioned the helm to Apple's former senior vice president of enterprise sales, Al Shipp. The company’s founder said he is instead focusing on a new venture.

“3VR was an amazing experience, but now I'm moving on to focus on a new venture," Russell said. "I can't share much, but it'll be disruptive, no doubt. Stay tuned!”

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