Blippar, the company best known for its augmented reality app, has raised $55 million in Series D funding to help towards it pivot to building a “visual browser.”
The company’s CEO and cofounder Ambarish Mitra told us last year “what I’m trying to build is bigger than the internet itself.” Blippar wants to build a visual catalogue of every object in the world, using image recognition technology and machine learning, rather than simply tagging them with chips. The idea is that the visual browser could recognise everything a user points their smartphone camera at — from The Empire State Building, to a dog, which constantly changes its characteristics.
Business Insider had heard Blippar was seeking a larger round in order to reach this ambitious vision. Speaking to us again before the $55 million funding round was announced, Mitra joked that “there is no CEO in the world who wouldn’t look for more funding,” but that the investment was sufficient enough for the objectives the company is looking to achieve over the next 18 months.
The round was led by Khazanah Nasional Berhad, the strategic investment fund of the government of Malaysia, which has also previously invested in technology firms including Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba and British travel search site Skyscanner.
The round also included follow-on funding from Blippar’s existing investors and brings the 5-year-old London and New York-based company’s total funding to $100 million. Mitra refused to comment on the company’s valuation, but last year The Financial Times reported Blippar turned down an offer to be acquired for $1.5 billion.
Mitra said Khazanah Nasional Berhad are a great fit with Blippar because they are investors with a “long-term vision,” who will also be able to help the company tap into the Asia market.
Blippar’s long-term vision: To improve the knowledge of the 3/7 of the world with poor literacy skills
One of Blippar’s big goals with its visual browser project is to empower the estimated 3/7 of the world who either can’t read or write or who only have very basic literacy skills.
While a city dweller might use a visual browser to find out the name of an interesting flower or a strange-looking piece of fruit, having access to the technology in an unprivileged part of the world could improve knowledge by huge leaps.
“[Someone] in an unprivileged part of the world [may ask] what is that random piece of equipment? What plant can grow on this soil? These are basic questions that usually go unanswered or people usually go and ask the wise man of the village about the ‘what is’ question for any topic. I think this will act as a great equaliser and will remain one of the long-term visions of the business,” Mitra said.
Mitra explained that some handset makers are banking on that 3/7 of the population and are beginning to make cheap phones with smart optics. But these are based on operating systems that do not exist today as commercial products to cater for illiterate people in places such as South East Asia and Africa to whom the basic smartphone keyboard and homescreen would be completely alien.
There are lots of other companies banking on mobile in this part of the world too. Facebook’s non-profit organisation Internet.org is using a number of means to bring connectivity to parts of the world where there is no internet.
However one of Internet.org’s services, Free Basics — which offers a handpicked selection of apps, including Facebook, at no charge — has been criticised by supporters of net neutrality who believe service providers should not limit access to certain services in favour of others. Free Basics was even banned by the Indian government, a move Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg said was “disappointing.”
Mitra said he welcomes Facebook’s move to bring free internet to unconnected parts of the world, because that will support businesses like Blippar. But he says there are still gaps in the market.
“Facebook is trying to connect people, but it’s still the educated people. To use Facebook, you still need to use phones which have full language-based navigation, then you have to have apps pre-installed, and to log in, all those things are a [problem if you are not literate,]” Mitra said.
The next 12 months: Make Blippar’s image recognition system as smart as an adult
Blippar’s plan to bring “parity of knowledge” to more parts of the world is probably a little way off. Right now, Blippar is focused on making its visual browser a “utilitarian layer” that people will use two to three times a day. Mitra hinted there will be some product announcements in the next six months.
There are still some issues to address, right now there are still a lot of “false positives” when it comes to recognising objects that need to be ironed out. Today machine learning looks at things like a child, Mitra said, and the aim this year is to build a system sophisticated enough to look at things like a mature human. Blippar plans to build this technology itself or acquire companies, whichever gets it there faster.
“The key goal in the next 12 months is to move the system to be smart enough so it almost has a visual perception of a grown-up person, so it understands most things it looks at, so people trust that system,” Mitra said. “Once people trust the system, we can diversify.”
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