World Wide Web world…
Profile: Mobile Acuity
Core business: Mobile visual search for advertising and retail
Employees: 1 – 10
Customers: Marketing & media companies and retailers, including Tesco
World Wide Web world
What if you could point your mobile phone at any product, take a photo and instantly access a web site that tells you all about it, including what it is and where to buy it, price comparisons and customer reviews, then press a button and buy it? What if you could point at any object or image – e.g. exhibits in a gallery or cars in a showroom, a building, an advertisement or magazine cover – and also access all sorts of digital content including web sites, audio and video?
Most of us are already familiar with barcodes as well as their more grown-up versions, QR codes, which provide a kind of digital label that connects you, via a scanner or camera phone, to the relevant web site. But a company called Mobile Acuity has developed a technology for mobile devices which enables you to do the same – and much, much more – with ordinary images and objects, effectively turning the world into an extension of the World Wide Web, with web sites accessible via your camera by clicking on images and three-dimensional objects, the same as clicking on a hot link in a document or browser.
This new technology is called “mobile visual search,” and it's aleady been adopted by major marketing companies and retailers including Tesco, who are looking to integrate it into their e-commerce system.
Mobile Acuity founder and CEO Anthony Ashbrook has specialised in computer vision technologies for over 15 years. Before coming to Scotland, he did his PhD in machine intelligence at Sheffield University and he has also worked with companies including Vision Innovations, Virtual Mirrors and C3D, better known now as Dimensional Imaging. In his earlier commercial work, he focused on imaging, computer vision and computer graphics, for industrial and niche applications, but mobile visual search is the mass-market product he’s always been hoping to find.
The big idea
Ashbrook's lightbulb moment came in 2003, when mobile phones started appearing with a digital camera built in as standard. The big idea was “the mobile that can see” – a new way to search just by pointing the phone, interrogating image databases just like a text search. “The mobile phone with camera provided a platform for thousands of new applications,” says Ashbrook, “for very little capital outlay by individual consumers.”
While still working as a consultant, Ashbrook teamed up with Dr Mark Wright at the University of Edinburgh to develop the idea of “image recognition applications for camera phones” and mobile visual search – and Mobile Acuity started taking shape as a commercial reality.
After winning £120,000 proof-of-concept funding from Scottish Enterprise to advance its research from 2004 to December 2005, the company was founded in early 2006 as a spin-out from the University of Edinburgh, backed by a private investor. Within a year, Ashbrook and co-founder Wright had a commercial product ready for market and quickly won business from major brands such as Disney and Nike, but it took a few more years to establish a recurring revenue stream for the business. “Six years later this technology is still just emerging – we were way ahead of the market, which in itself is a challenge,” says Ashbrook.
The question for Mobile Acuity in the early days was: “We have a great technology but how can we most effectively turn this into a business?”
One idea was to develop an app which would recognise virtually everything, but how would you convert that into profits? To make the product work for every object in the world would also take an army of assistants working for thousands of years – collecting millions of images, identifying and classifying every single image, then building the database. Apart from the enormous investment required before you would start to earn money, this would mean competing head-on with established industry giants such as Google, which already collects millions of images from its own users.
Ironically, the launch of Google “Goggles,” an image recognition application which works in a similar way to the system developed by Mobile Acuity, has been a very positive thing for the young Scottish start-up, because it made the technology much better known and more widely accepted – potential customers already know that mobile search is practical and a major technology player is leading the way.
What makes Mobile Acuity different, however, is that it does not intend to compete in the same market sector. Instead of building up a universal database with millions of images,it goes to customers who have their own specialist images ready compiled, and provides a solution which enables that client’s consumers to point at a product or an image of a product in an advertisement or other visual media, and search an image database, using their own mobile phones and a special downloadable app – to browse information and also make purchases.
“The customer who has the most potential for us is the one who wants to give its consumers the best user experience,” says Ashbrook.
First major breakthroughs
Winning a major contact from Tesco is a huge advance for Ashbrook and his colleagues. Last year, the retail giant issued a tender for a new barcode reader solution for mobiles, and Mobile Acuity came out the winner in ashoot-out with a number of international competitors.
The initial specification was simply for barcodes, but Ashbrook reveals that he “sneaked in a camera button” which demonstrated extra capabilities, including mobile visual search. Tesco’s Grocery app has been downloaded and used for millions of scans.
Another recent breakthrough was a partnership with TurnIntoCash.com, enabling users of the company’s website to work out how much their old music and film collections are worth, integrating Mobile Acuity barcode scanning technology across all mobile phone platforms, including iPhone, Android and Blackberry, and “working together to add future visual search functions to the apps.” As a measure of its impact, the iPhone app was downloaded over 1,000 times in its first full week on the iTunes store.
Another partnership with “digital media delivery company” 7digital will enable users to “discover” music by pointing their phones at an image on a CD cover or another visual medium to access information then decide whether to preview or download and purchase the music.
Mobile Acuity does not earn its revenues from selling software licenses but provides an “unbranded solution” and then deploys a web-based service to clients, hosting the database and processing queries from users.
In the longer term, the company will generate its revenues by earning royalties from usage and the number of transactions. “We want to be in the transaction path,” Ashbrook explains, “and monetise the process.”
The idea has incredible potential. For example, Tesco operates more than 5,000 stores in 14 countries and had revenues of over £60 billion in the last financial year. It reportedly sells 1.5 billion bananas a year and delivers over one billion items to customers’ homes every year. If Mobile Acuity earned a commission every time a Tesco customer used its mobile app to purchase a product...
More mobile money
Mobile Acuity recently secured a major investment from bieMEDIA, a US-based online marketing and media solutions company, and a Scottish business angel network fronted by Steven Morris and the University of Edinburgh’s new investment fund Old College Capital. The funds will be used to expand the company’s operations into the US and East Asian markets.
Chris Wade, Executive Chairman of Mobile Acuity, says that the investment will not only enable the company to expand overseas and diversify into new vertical markets but “also allow us to continue to grow and invest in local skills and resources.”
Jon Barocas, CEO of bieMEDIA, believes the investment will revolutionise the way its clients and consumers interact “by offering compelling web, video and mobile commerce experiences and opportunities.”