App that recognizes objects with AI raises $54M

Blippar gives you a ‘world of information’
Blippar gives you a ‘world of information’   

An augmented reality (AR) and artificial intelligence (AI) start-up has raised $54 million, with the investment fund of the Malaysian government jumping on board.

British firm Blippar has created an app that can give you information about any object just by pointing your smartphone at it. It allows a user to point their phone camera at something such as a coffee mug or plant, and get detailed information about it. In the case of a coffee mug, Blippar's app will tell users about the nearest coffee shops or the closest furniture stores to buy a new set.

Khazanah Nasional Berhad, the strategic investment fund of the Government of Malaysia, led the $54 million round which included Blippar's current investors, the start-up announced on Wednesday.

The company was formed in 2011 and founder Ambarish Mitra said that Google and Yahoo are not the end means of discovering information.

"People are getting more and more curious about the world yet a lot lot of their curiosity remains unanswered. As digital people we think we've made it and you think Google or Yahoo is the answer but there is still a big gap in the market. You still can't point at everything in the world and describe it and get to know more about it," Mitra told CNBC in a phone interview.

Blippar has around 60 engineers in its San Francisco and Mountain View offices in California and a lot of the money will be used to hire more people. "Infrastructure, deep learning and machine learning expertise is not cheap," Mitra said.

The cash will also be deployed on user acquisition. The app currently has 65 million users.

Challenge to Google?

Blippar's business model relies on using its technology to help brands advertise. For example, Coca Cola – which is a client of the company – could make their bottles recognizable by the Blippar app and then feed customers promotions or YouTube videos as a way of advertising when people "blip" their product. Blippar is paid by the brand for the campaign as well as the real-time dashboard of analytics.

Solves problem when you can’t Google: Blippar CEO
Solving a problem when you can’t Google: Blippar   

"In the last 50 years brands have never got data about what happens to their products in the real world. We are the only people giving them that data. That unique selling point is very strong to make business decisions which can impact their bottom line," Mitra told CNBC.

The start-up currently has 1,000 brands onboard and saw revenues rise 200 percent year-on-year in 2015, Mitra said, adding that he could not disclose actual figures.

So does this put Blippar against the likes of search players including Google and Yahoo? Not according to Mitra, who said the companies can work together.

"Search is a behavior. When you have a question in mind and the subject is not in front of you, you can search. If you have a complex object, something which is right in front of you and you want instant information about it, that is where Blippar is positioning itself," the founder said.

"We are not a search player, we are discovering the world around you, and there will be a huge era of coexistence."

'6 year old brain'

Mitra's background is a colorful one, growing up in the mining town of Dhanbad in Calcutta, India and moving to Delhi at the age of 14 after not wanting to become an engineer like his parents desired.

He found a company called which went public in 2000. The entrepreneur then moved to the U.K. where he "almost went bankrupt" in 2009, before joining insurance group AXA as its head of innovation. While sitting in a public house one afternoon, Mitra "made a joke of making the Queen come to life off a £20 note", and that's how the idea of Blippar was born.

The app works using artificial intelligence to improve its ability to recognize objects. Mitra described the software as currently having the "brain of a five or six year old child" in that it could recognize generic things like a car, but not the brand, for example. As an increasing number of consumers use the app, the AI will get smarter in a shorter amount of time, allowing it to identify more complex objects.

"Today's product took us one-and-a-half to two years to build. To make it into an 18 year old brain, it will only take another seven to eight months. The intelligence grows exponentially, but the time to do it is reducing," he said.