‘We aspire to be what tweeting is to microblogging, what googling is to internet search’
BLIPPING THE SHOW
The second annual Wearable Technology Show is in full swing at the ExCel Centre in London when I meet Jessica Butcher. She is the Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) and one-quarter of the founding team at Blippar, the world’s largest image recognition and mobile augmented reality platform.
Coming off the back of a wildly successful 2014, Blippar is on a massive roll. The company has just completed a $45 million funding round and is due to launch a completely revamped version of its mobile app at South By Southwest (SSXW) the following weekend. The sense of energy and enthusiasm emanating from Butcher is palpable.
An Oxford marketing graduate with a passion for history, Butcher displays little of pressure one might expect to find in someone charged with marketing a brand at the bleeding edge of tech.
‘I’ve really got my work cut out at the moment, in terms of remembering what I am and am not allowed to say’ she jokes.
BLIPPING THE QUEEN
Blippar began in 2011, the result of a joke shared over drinks in a Surrey pub, between CEO Ambarish Mitra and CTO Omar Tayeb. The joke, about bringing the Queen’s head to life on a £20 note led to a proof of concept and the creation of a company.
‘We had a sense from day 1, that we could de-tech this very bleeding edge technology and turn it into a behaviour’ says Butcher.
The company now has 200 employees, across 11 offices, in 7 countries. It has a user-base of 50 million people and has launched over 750 campaigns with some of the world’s most lucrative brands. To date, its platform has measured 1.5 billion blippable interactions.
Blippar is clearly a company growing in confidence. It is expanding its ambitions and building upon its achievements, almost as rapidly as it is increasing its baseline metrics.
Its early focus has been on helping brands deliver augmented reality experiences to customers. Companies place a marker, (called a blip) on their product – which can be anything, from a logo to the product itself. Blippar’s image recognition software detects the camera, scans the frame and when it finds the trigger image, reads it and displays augmented information as an overlay on the physical object.
The overlay can be 2D or 3D, can use location, video, game, or interactive elements and provides an AR experience directly on the device screen. It has proven enormously attractive to brands. Everyone from Coca-Cola to Disney has been keen to try it.
A few day after the interview with Jess Butcher, Ambarish Mitra, unveils the companies grander vision at SSXW.
It marks a subtle shift away from its previous incarnation and reveals the scope of what Blippar hopes will power its future growth.
The new app uses the camera to activate instantaneous digital search and draws information about whatever it is looking at directly from the network. The company calls it is ‘a visual browser for the physical world’ one not tied to markers, which will soon allow people to blip anything they see.
‘We want to do for the physical world what Google did for the Internet’ said Mitra during the unveiling.
Due for an April release, the new app positions Blippar as a global player in search and visual browsing.
On launch, the app will be primed to recognise all English-language DVD covers, albums, fiction books and movie posters. A smart move, because there is already extensive cataloguing in these areas. Mitra says it expects to expand the apps functionality on a ‘week-by-week basis.’
BLIPPING AS A VERB
Jess Butcher, wants to make ‘blipping’ a verb. ‘We aspire to be what tweeting is to microblogging, what googling is to internet search’ she says.
If the company succeeds, ‘blipping’ something will become synonymous with unlocking valuable, helpful and entertaining experiences about it.
Blippar is not seeking to replace text search but to supplement it. The company see keyword searches as limited, because of the need to form a query in the first place. By contrast, visual search is intuitive and satisfies our innate curiosity to know more about whatever we are looking at.
Blippar wants to create a future where the act of pointing a camera at something, leaves us a tap away from receiving more information about it. Whether the object we pointed at is the Mona Lisa, an interactive anatomy textbook, a heritage site, or the family dog, Blippar, want us to know it better.
The company are marketing an app but in reality they are developing a platform. One that indexes the visual world and one that will undoubtedly require an awful lot of content. A point not lost on Jess Butcher.
‘The critical point to this behaviour taking off and being done well, is that we need content. What do you turn the world on with, unless somebody has invested in the digital content of all those anatomical layers or the historical 3D model brought to life [from] the ruins? I see a key role for brands to play a large part in actually building that content with us.’
To aid content creation, Blippar has created Blipbuilder which allows brands, content producers and creative agencies to craft content with a drag-and-drop interface. Butcher says it can be done ‘within minutes’ allowing print ads, billboards, packaging merchandising and products to be embedded with blippable elements.
BLIPPING THE FUTURE
The short-term, sees Blippar growing its new search platform and building upon the relationships it has with brands to leverage growth into new verticals. Mitra hinted as much in a recent interview when he indicated that the company may be moving into healthcare and education.
Jess Butcher points out that Blippar’s business is increasingly extending outside of marketing, into education, arts and culture, government and engineering. ‘The verb will live, not as you’re going to get sold to every time you blip, but you’re unlocking something valuable from the world around you’ she says.
She also teases future developments, promising these will involve users and incorporate Artificial Intelligence and contextual recognition. She says she sees the model for user-generated augmented reality following a Wikipedia-like path and cautions against allowing an augmented world to become overrun with ‘digital graffiti.’
If it can keep pace with competition from the likes of Google, Blippar is well positioned to grow for the next stage of mobile usage and the leap to wearables. Indeed, smart glasses seem to be a natural fit for a company innovating in visual search.
There is no doubt that visual search is a compelling way of interacting with the world. Pointing a camera at a textbook or a historical ruin and uncovering new layers of knowledge is both a fascinating and liberating journey.
We already search with our eyes. It is how we navigate, assess, envision and dream. It is the primary sense we use to discover. It is subtle, subjective, non-verbal and intuitive and it requires neither education or literacy to undertake.
Blippar believes that visual search can help us return to a more natural sensory relationship with the world. One where we explore our natural curiosities, without the need to form queries in keyword-based search engines. Instead, we only, look and blip. For Blippar, perhaps that goal alone, makes ‘blipping the world’ worth pursuing.