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Augmented reality startup Blippar hopes to turn your face into a digital billboard

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The company’s new Halos feature launches in beta today

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The latest product from augmented reality startup Blippar has a simple, if somewhat unnerving, pitch: what if you could turn your face into a digital billboard?

The company’s new Halos feature allows you to do exactly that. You scan your likeness with the Blippar app and it saves a version of you on its servers. You can then fill out some personal tidbits, like your favorite music or latest tweets, and anyone who “blipps” you in future (i.e., scans your face with the app) will see this information as a halo of bubbles floating around your head.

“[It’s] your unique way to express yourself,” Blippar CEO Ambarish Mitra tells The Verge. “Your face is like your billboard — we recognize human beings by their faces — and this is like a digital manifestation of that.”

Conceptually, it’s a bit weird, but the facial recognition part is quick and accurate, and for Blippar that’s what matters most. The company says it’s pitching the app to consumers, but also wants it to act as advertising for its technology (a billboard, if you will) that it hopes to sell to third parties. Mitra suggests the tech could be incorporated by banks for authentication purposes, or by apps for conferences and events, with attendees able to scan each other’s faces to find out who they are and what they do.

Anyone can sign up for Halos now, but the feature actually launched last year for celebrities only. Since then, though, a number of reports have suggested that the UK startup is struggling to makes its business work.

The author’s new “blippable” face.
Photo by James Vincent / The Verge

A blip in the finances

The company started life as what was essentially a marketing agency, partnering with big clients like Coca-Cola and Cadbury to add AR features to their advertising. (You’d scan an ad with the Blippar app to see some extra content or a special offer.) But according to a report from Business Insider, the firm didn’t get enough repeat business to sustain this model. It’s since pivoted to developing its own AR and object recognition, and selling these features to other firms.

But this approach might not be working either. In its most recent financial accounts, Blippar posted a loss of £25.8 million ($31.3 million) in the 16 months leading up to March 2016, while revenues over that same time period were £8.5 million. Reports from Bloomberg and Business Insider said the company is burning through cash fast, and needs another funding round to stay soluble. (The company’s CEO was also caught in a minor scandal when the Financial Times found he’d been embellishing his CV.)

When asked about these problems, Mitra was upbeat. “No, we are not in the middle of a funding round, in fact we have several product launches coming up,” he told The Verge. “Blippar is in a very healthy financial condition.” He also dismissed reports interpreting the closure of the company’s San Francisco offices as a sign of trouble: “We actually moved into a bigger offices with bigger head count. We shut down our San Francisco offices with a 2,200-square-foot office, and moved to a 10,000-square-foot office in Mountain View, which is way more expensive real estate.”

Mitra did acknowledge that Blippar was currently spending a lot, but explained it as a natural result of the company’s pivot to tech R&D. “The burn is a natural factor,” he said. “You cannot hire the world’s smartest people and not expect burn, and AI, particularly, is an industry where talent costs [...] But this is something we’re welcoming. We’re not worried by it, we’re excited by it.”

Blippar’s current app is fast but hit and miss. Here it is identifying some roses as poinsettias.
Photo by James Vincent / The Verge

Building the AR Wikipedia

And Blippar’s end goal is pretty exciting. Eventually, says Mitra, he wants the company to build a complete “visual browser” — an app that recognizes and identifies anything you point your phone at. Scan a car, for example, and it’ll identify the manufacturer, make, and year, and then maybe bring up the Wikipedia page and tell you how much one costs to buy. In fact, Blippar’s app already does this in the US, but Mitra wants it to cover more, from animals to products to people. Thus the new facial recognition feature.

At its best, Blippar could be an AR Wikipedia, the ultimate tool to satisfy your curiosity. At the moment, when I point it at my kitchen, it just tells me where the nearest Muji store is. Meanwhile, rivals are diving into the same space, offering their own augmented reality products. There’s Shazam for food, Samsung’s “Bixby Vision” on the new Galaxy, and Apple’s ARKit. If Blippar wants to build the ultimate visual search engine, it needs to get a move on.