TECHCITYINSIDER100: UK image-recognition phone app maker Blippar recently walked away with first prize in the start-up pitching competition at LeWeb London. Cofounder and chief marketing officer Jessica Butcher takes Jonathan Webdale on an augmented reality tour.
Blippar chief executive Ambarish Mitra and chief technology officer Omar Tayeb have just returned from the annual Qualcomm Uplinq conference in San Diego, where they were busy putting nail varnish on chairman and CEO Dr Paul Jacobs.
Fellow Blippar cofounder and chief marketing officer Jessica Butcher (pictured) retells the story of her colleagues’ recent visit to the US, where they showed off their product to the boss of the mobile chip manufacturer.
The nail varnish was virtual, an augmented reality (AR) ad campaign from L’Oréal, which appears through the Blippar iOS and Android app via the combination of in-built smartphone camera and proprietary image-recognition technology. The relationship with Qualcomm is very real, after the latter’s investment arm, Qualcomm Ventures, provided UK-based Blippar with seed funding at the start of 2012.
Butcher, who, the week before Uplinq, was busy pitching Blippar in the start-up competition at LeWeb London, says the Qualcomm cash was a “low six-figure” sum. More – from other sources – will follow in the next few months as the firm aims to close a “significant” first round of finance.
Blippar walked away from LeWeb with first prize, welcome exposure at such a critical stage in the company’s development.
“It’s excited investor interest, brand interest, media interest – being able to tell the world about what we’re up to – and interest in British technology as well. All of those things have raised our profile dramatically. It was a fabulous platform for us,” says Butcher.
Blippar is aiming to build its own fabulous platform.
The last two letters of the company’s name are of course a reference to its roots in augmented reality but the hope is they will eventually become no more than a suffix to a new verb as consumers begin to ‘blipp’ real-world objects in order to open up interactive experiences around them.
Butcher’s role is to “de-tech” Blippar, to take the product to market “not as tech, but as ‘magic things happen in the world around you’,” getting brands, media companies and others to understand this and take up the challenge of showing off the platform’s creative potential.
The message seems to be going down rather well. She trots off a list of names of clients that have run their own Blippar campaigns – Cadbury and Tesco to start with, soon followed by Unilever, Nestle, Heinz, Diageo, Domino’s Pizza, Nike, … The list goes on. Even Justin Bieber’s got in on the act recently thanks to a promotion for his new album that superimposes the singer’s image on to smartphone photos.
The campaign isn’t the best illustration of what Blippar’s capable of. One for last year’s re-release of Jurassic Park, featuring the head of a Tyrannosaurus Rex emerging from posters and newspaper ads, linking to a trailer, is a better example.
Butcher is keen to point out the difference between ‘blipping’ and QR codes, which she says have failed to make a real impression on consumers.
“The QR code was never a medium. It was a bridge to an existing medium. Ours is a content medium in itself – it’s a way of delivering information instantaneously to the phone, to the hand, and not just information but experiences,” she says.
Still, Blippar faces essentially the same challenge – that of raising consumer awareness and overcoming the fact that people need to download the app before they can interact with any of the few implementations that exist.
“We’ve done about 180 campaigns right now – that sounds like a lot but it’s not. The chances of you bumping into something that’s ‘blippable’ in your everyday life is still pretty slim,” Butcher admits.
Around 780,000 people have so far installed the Blippar app, around 85% of these in the UK, but already the firm, which has grown to 25 people over the past year, is eyeing international expansion.
Currently sharing office space in Holborn, rented from Interpublic outdoor marketing specialist Rapport Worldwide, Blippar has recently set up in New York. Cracking the US market will be a major priority once the new financing is in place – expected to happen some around “the end of summer, early autumn,” according to Butcher.
“It’s multimillion,” she says of the amount. “We’re talking to a lot of the usual suspects – a mixture of VC and strategic investors across the sectors we work in, including FMCG, media and advertising.”
Butcher says Blippar is profitable. The business model is currently based on charging clients per campaign, varying according on the complexity and the amount of creative and design work required (at the moment the firm does most of this, but hopes agencies will take up the challenge as they become more familiar with the concept and Blippar develops as a platform on top of which others can build).
“We’re keen to take the blipps out of just advertising and into the fabric of what people are reading and doing in the world around them,” Butcher adds.
She cites publishing – enhanced newspapers and magazines – as an area the firm is particularly keen to see develop. Blippar has in the past few months run tie-ins with the likes of The Guardian, Telegraph Media Group and Haymarket Publishing.
But, as is the case with any sector, it’s up against competition. Bauer Media, for example, has recently launched a special augmented reality issue of celebrity gossip magazine Heat relying on technology from Blippar rival Aurasma – a spin-off of Autonomy that’s similarly developing a bespoke white label app for a special AR edition of Condé Nast’s GQ men’s magazine, due out in September. The publisher has previously worked with another UK start-up in the space, producing an AR issue of Tatler to commemorate The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee together with Zappar.
All three companies are aiming to become the dominant player in image recognition AR, as distinct from the location-based kind three-year-old Dutch tech firm Layar has perhaps done most to promote in Europe at least. Layar is now making image recognition its focus, according to Butcher, who maintains that Blippar was first to market in this increasingly contested field. Either way, she’s proud to be part of such a vibrant scene.
“I think the Brits have been quiet on tech innovation for a while now. We did have all the 1998-2000 flurry of activity with start-ups but we’ve kind of beaten ourselves up about it a bit since then,” she says. “We haven’t really shouted about anything. Mobile and this space has been the next mushroom of excitement that’s come out of London and we’re really excited to see all the innovation coming out of the UK and Europe.”
Blippar has had the support of UK Trade & Investment after winning a competition in November last year to discover the best in UK innovation. The organisation sponsored the firm to present at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January and the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona in February.
“We’ve become a sort of poster girl for the best of British and we fully intend to be that,” says Butcher.
She cites UK music recognition service Shazam as the kind of company she admires, though after celebrating its 10-year anniversary in 2011 the latter is hardly a start-up.
“Because of the parallels of them being the ears of the phone while we’re aspiring to be the eyes of the phone and using those as ways to interpret the world around us, there’s a lot we can learn from their success and their model and how we evolve that,” says Butcher.
Shazam raised US$32m in third round financing shortly before clocking up its first decade. A few months prior, Layar raised a €10m (US$7.9m) second round. Beyond the virtual lipstick and roaring T-rexes, it will be interesting to see how much Blippar’s future investors are prepared to bet on the virtual world.