Ambarish Mitra, CEO of London startup Blippar, came out with the
bold statement last year that what he was working on could be
“bigger than the internet itself”.
On Thursday, Mitra revealed the fruits of his work.
“Blipparsphere” is a “visual browser” that uses machine learning
to recognize real-world objects.
To use it, users fire up the iOS or Android Blippar app and point
their smartphone camera at any object.
The app then uses Blippar’s “proprietary knowledge graph” to
analyze the object’s characteristics and suggest what that it
might be – based on its previous performance of recognizing
similar objects – and then offer additional useful information
about it from the web.
The suggestions appear in a circle on the middle of the
smartphone screen, while other words related to the
characteristics of that object or other similar objects buzz
The aim is for the machine learning database to build a visual
catalog of every object in the world – from animals and people
that move around, to plants that often change their
characteristics day-to-day, to logos and landmarks, and the
millions of mundane objects.
The algorithm will also learn the user themselves, suggesting a
cluster of objects that are likely relevant to that individual
person, based on the kinds of things they have pointed their
phone at before.
We tried it out for ourselves
Business Insider was given a demo of the Blipparsphere at the
company’s London office last month.
Sure enough, when I pointed the smartphone camera at a chair, the
coffee machine, a spoon, a banana, and a television set, the app
instantly recognized what the objects were.
Keen to ensure I was not being subjected to a controlled
environment, with objects that have been tested dozens of times
by Blippar’s staff, I pulled out a pen from my bag. The app
Someone nearby had their rucksack next to them on the table. The
app instantly recognized the Nike logo on the pocket.
Pointing the smartphone camera out of the window, the app
recognized the small objects speeding across London Bridge below
Mitra opened the fridge door and pulled out – seemingly at random
– someone’s lunch. The app recognized some of the different
elements of the salad inside the lunchbox (through the
transparent plastic casing) – lettuce, tomato, and even had a
guess that there was also meat of some sort inside.
Mitra explained that if a human could reasonably guess what a
dish is, or what ingredients it contains, it’s likely the Blippar
app could do a good job of it too.
Mitra recalled a recent trip to Beijing when he did a walking
tour. Mitra said he impressed the locals at the market, saying
the app recognized different species of fish and enabled him to
teach them about the history of the Peking duck.
The app did make mistakes on the way: It thought the microwave
was a toilet because there was a kitchen roll stood next to it on
the kitchen side. Sometimes it mistook a chair for a table and
things such as shadow and distance affected its performance – but
its guesses were still intelligent, as they were based on the
accuracy of the results it had delivered to other users who had
pointed their smartphones at objects with similar
How Blippar got there
Impressed, but still somewhat cynically questioning whether I was
being duped in some way, I asked Mitra how on earth a small
company of 350 people that originally started out just five years
ago in the augmented reality space had seemingly made a visual
recognition breakthrough the likes of tech giants like Google and
Microsoft have failed to crack.
Its augmented reality start certainly helped from a technology
standpoint. The Blippar app began as a way to point your
smartphone camera at a physical object to make them come to life
on your screen. It made its money by allowing brands to make
their products “blippable” for ad campaigns, but in those five
years, it also got very good at recognizing all different types
of objects – from cars, to logos, to pieces of fruit.
Hypothetically, anyone who has used the Blippar app in the past,
has helped the company’s system learn how to make a realistic
guess as to what an object might be.
Mitra believes it’s also the culture of the business that allowed
it to pivot towards building its visual discovery browser.
He said: “First of all: Focus. Large companies like Google can
have thousands of engineers distributed on so many hobby
projects. We have a dedicated focus.”
He added that Blippar looks to hire “thinkers rather than
He explains that with an analogy: “There are many doctors in this
world, hundreds of thousands of doctors, but there are maybe
3,000 amazing brain surgeons. You cannot compare the two. There
is a professional comparison, but not really, so we are after
those brain surgeons. One of those is equal to hundreds of
engineers elsewhere. They are handpicked. Our given mission has
never been achieved before and that’s why we are having
Mitra said there’s another key difference in his leadership
style: “I’m very philosophical … I’m willing to lose anything
to achieve [our goal] and that’s difficult to achieve in large
Blippar has also been buoyed by $104 million in outside
In March, the company raised a $54 million Series D round led
by Khazanah National 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.
What the Blipparshere could be used for
Mitra passionately bounces as he reels off all the potential use
cases for the Blipparsphere: Traffic-flow management; it could
help radiologists assess x-rays and diagnose health issues; it
could be fed with pattern behavior and alert a CCTV officer when
there was about to be a riot or a terror attack; it could be
installed in self-driving cars – there are a lot of
The subject Mitra is most passionate about is removing illiteracy
as a barrier to development in third-world countries. Someone in
an unprivileged part of the world could potentially use the app
to determine whether the soil in front of them was fertile,
whether a fruit was safe to eat, or how to use a piece of
“People have disrupted the automotive industry, the retail
industry, people disrupted banking. This is like disrupting 5,000
years of social structures and bringing knowledge parity in the
world,” Mitra said.
Blippar is not there yet – the missing piece is accurate natural
language translation within its image recognition engine – but
Mitra adds: “We are getting there.”
For the time being, Blippar will be looking to go back to its
heritage to make money from the Blipparsphere: Making money from
Nestle, for example, could pay Blippar to ensure the
Blipparsphere always accurately identifies the make and model of
its coffee makers and provides up-to-date information and an easy
way to purchase the machine, or more coffee pods.
In the meantime, Mitra wants Blippar users to point their phones
at as many objects as possible. The more people use the app, the
more its machine learns, and the more intelligent the
Blipparsphere will be.
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