If you’ve checked Instagram or Facebook at all in the last month, chances are you’ve seen at least one selfie that looks like it was painted by Vincent van Gogh or Pablo Picasso.
That’s because of a free app called Prisma.
Thanks to its bold, impressionistic filters, Prisma has quickly become the hottest photography app of the summer. The Russian startup behind the app, Prisma Labs, says that it has seen 42 million downloads since June 11 and ‘prismed’ 1.2 billion photos.
What people who’ve used Prisma probably don’t not realise is that the app is actually an experiment in artificial intelligence. When you add a filter to a photo in Prisma, you’re training a system of neural networks that analyse your photo and recreate it to look like a work of art. All of this happens in a matter of seconds.
During a recent interview with Business Insider, Prisma Labs CEO Alexey Moiseenkov said he plans to use the same technology to edit much more than just photos.
“The vision is to help people share more on the internet with the help of AI,” he said.
From Russia with love
Moiseenkov, a 25-year-old graduate of Russia’s Polytechnic University, leads a team of nine people at Prisma Labs in Moscow.
He got the idea for Prisma after stumbling on an open-source AI system called DeepArt last year. German PhD students had built an algorithm that could redraw an image based on a the style and brush strokes of a famous painting.
Moiseenkov thought the same AI system behind DeepArt could be made into a mobile filter app, but there was only one problem: The algorithm was too slow at redrawing photos. He knew the app had to be as fast as using Instagram’s filters.
After a few months of work, he said his team was able to make DeepArt’s AI “1,000 times faster.”
Once Prisma was released in the App Store on June 11, the app quickly rose up the charts in the photo and video category. It eventually cracked the App Store’s top 10 overall downloads in mid July before arriving in the Google Play Store on July 24.
What’s impressive about Prisma’s early success is that its popularity is based entirely on word of mouth. The app is most popular in Russia, India, and the U.S., according to research firm App Annie.
“We did nothing at all,” Moiseenkov said. “It’s totally organic growth.”
The app’s subtle “Prisma” watermark on photos (which can be removed in the app’s settings) helped it gain traction early on. Several celebrities, including Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and “Guardians of the Galaxy” writer James Gunn, helped spread the word on Instagram.
Moiseenkov attributes Prisma’s virality to the fact that, at the end of the day, people want their photos to look interesting.
“Everybody in the world wants to create something a little bit better than average,” he said. “And these filters and styles help people to improve their photos. It’s deeply connected with my vision.”
Monetisation and the Facebook question
Prisma isn’t the first eastern European filter app to go viral. Its story is similar to that of MSQRD, a Belarus startup that Facebook bought for its Snapchat-like face masks earlier this year. Prior to that, Snapchat scooped up Ukrainian startup Looksery to power its own selfie filters in 2015.
When reached for comment, a Facebook spokesperson denied the rumour and said the company was not considering an acquisition of Prisma. Moiseenkov declined to comment on his visit beyond that the meeting was “really private.”
Aleksej Gubarev, a Prisma investor and CEO of Servers.com, said in an interview that Prisma had been in discussions with several “top” U.S. and Chinese tech companies, but declined to elaborate. He said Prisma was close to completing a round of funding, but wouldn’t reveal how much was being raised.
Other current Prisma investors include Russian tech company My.com (where Moiseenkov previously worked as a product manager) and Gagarin Capital, which also invested in MSQRD.
If Prisma doesn’t get acquired, Gubarev said the app could quickly become profitable by selling sponsored filters.
It recently started experimenting with sponsored filters from the likes of Gett, an Uber competitor. Gubarev, whose company provides the cloud infrastructure for Prisma, said between 10 and 15 companies are in the queue to pay for sponsored filter placement in the app.
Moiseenkov said his team at Prisma Labs is mainly focused on building new features, not monetisation.
“For now, I’m really into product,” he said. “Not into the business side.”
Prisma plans to add video support in the next couple of weeks. Moiseenkov said the feature is done, but the team is making sure its servers will be able to handle the update.
Beyond video, he said Prisma could one day help enhance photos and videos in other ways. An API is being built to let businesses use the app’s filters for professional video production and prints, according to Gubarev.
Here’s a teaser of the upcoming video filters in action:
When asked if he was worried about Prisma’s novelty wearing off, Moiseenkov said he sees Prisma as a startup that uses AI to help people, not just a filter app.
“I think it’s only the beginning,” he said.