Blippar is probably best-known as the augmented-reality app that allows you to point your smartphone camera at objects and make them come to life on your screen.
But recently the company announced it was setting its sights on a far more ambitious project: A “visual browser” that would allow users to find out information about any object (not just those that have been specially tagged) just by looking at them through their phones. That could include anything from a cat, Buckingham Palace, or a piece of art. The project is currently in beta, and is due to be released to the public in December.
Speaking to Blippar founder and CEO Ambarish Mitra in the company’s London HQ, Business Insider said this kind of function could be extremely valuable to a search company like Google or Microsoft. Would he entertain a conversation about one of those companies acquiring Blippar?
“No,” Mitra responded. “And I will not change my mind on that because I’m a big believer that what I’m trying to build is bigger than the internet itself. Selling that would be stupid. And if I don’t do it, someone else will, but it’s something that has to be done.”
Building a visual browser is an incredibly complicated undertaking. It’s one thing to catalogue all the millions of websites on the web. But every object? There are billions and billions! And living objects, that constantly change their characteristics? It sounds like one of Google’s famous moonshot projects — and even a huge company like Google hasn’t publicly announced it is setting its sights on achieving a project like this. Amazon’s Firefly app, built into its Fire Phones, does something similar but it hasn’t had great uptake.
But through acquisitions and gutsy determination, Mitra is confident Blippar can get there and transform itself from an augmented reality app company to an “artificial intelligence, machine learning business.”
Blippar has raised around $US45 million in funding to date and is estimated to have a valuation of $US1.5 billion, making it one of the few British tech unicorns. The company has around 300 staff situated in 11 offices worldwide.
Blippar mostly makes money by forming partnerships with major advertisers, publishers, and education companies. Advertisers display Blippar’s logo on their products and marketing, magazine publishers use Blippar to make their stories interactive, and augmented reality can help make boring textbooks more fun. Mitra says Blippar has a 79% retention rate with its clients, and that most of them don’t use its services as a tactical one-off, but more like an agency, planning long-term initiatives.
Mitra won’t reveal the company’s revenues but says they are in “significant million dollars.” As for profitability, he says that is merely an “accounting state,” and that the company is more focused on investing towards its future.
Some of those investments will come through the form of acquisitions — perhaps up to 50, Mitra said.
He added: “This is like a components business. Nobody is working on the whole thing [in the visual browser space] but people are working on parts. So if I find out someone can recognise moving cars on the street better than anyone else, then I will be interested in that. If someone says ‘I have indexed every piece of art,’ I will be interested in that. We go by technology, opportunity, and interest.”
Mitra describes his vision as attempting to solve “one of the most complex computational problems on the planet.” It’s not just a case of image recognition, it’s about building an “internet on things” — as opposed to the popular term “internet of things.”
“The internet of things phenomena is about putting a chip on everything. But you don’t need to put a chip on everything to recognise it. I’m not going to put a chip on every plant, or every dog, or every butterfly — I can recognise all of that. It almost takes the entire history of knowledge to build this, like a super brain with an eye,” Mitra said.
Which ultimately leads to the question, “why?” Is a bit of dirt on the floor worth being cataloged and recognised?
Mitra said we take knowledge for granted: “Just imagine how 15 years ago your life was totally fine without Google, and now you cannot even make one decision without it. It’s an evolution in itself of how you can process information. The need for information is going up and up all the time because people want to know more.”
Then there’s the next “30-35%” of the world who have not yet come into contact with a mobile device.
Mitra said: “All these guys are going to have mobile devices soon, but they will still not have language as soon. They will not have all the anthropological facts to keep up that fast, but the devices will reach them because the cost of devices is almost non-existent. Those guy will not even know there was once a keyboard on the mobile phone; there will be an operating system that will just be driven by vision, that will just look at things. It will replace the wise man in the village, and they can say ‘hey, what’s this? What’s that?”
The enthusiasm from Mitra is palpable, yet the ultimate goal seems, on the face of it, some way off for a company of this size and at this point in its life stage, at just four-years-old.
Mitra says Blippar has “tremendous incoming interest” from the investor community, and he won’t rule out the possibility of an IPO if that is what it takes to turn his dream into a reality.
“Even Mark Zuckerberg said at the beginning of the year, the biggest trend he saw is augmented reality. How we interact with things is just going to change.”
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