Visual search – the next frontier?

Media outlets have reported that Blippar is “trying to be the next Google,” by creating a visual search engine that allows anyone to identify anything by pointing a smartphone at it and taking a picture.

With search potentially no longer bound by keywords or language, and enabled only by a simple image, what potential doors does this open for publishers?

FIPP’s Amy Duffin spoke to Jess Butcher, co-founder at Blippar about this latest development for the company, and the resulting possibilities available for publishers. 

Visual search ()

Last week, Blippar announced its new ‘visual search’ capability. Tell us about the reasoning behind this development and what this means for the direction of the company?

Blippar is so far known for being a mobile augmented reality platform. We have built a very successful tool that enables the owners of physical world collateral (print, packaging, merchandise, in-store environments etc.) to associate digital content experiences with it that can be unlocked by a smartphone user simply looking at it through their device. We’ve done that with more than 2,500 brands and 1,000s of leading print media titles and have created some wonderful augmented reality experiences.

This business model has been quite a content-rich and services-based one. Every single experience has to be custom-created and is well thought through. What this has meant from a consumer perspective is that, whilst high-value, the behaviour been fairly reactive off a limited number of real-world images and objects. A person has to see a trigger image in the physical world and be told that it is interactive in order to know they can take their phone out and blipp it.

What this current announcement sees is a massive new world of opportunity opening up. We want to adjust that behaviour, so instead of being reactive, it becomes proactive. With our visual browser capabilities we will start to dramatically flesh out the volume of interactive content that is within our platform and ‘turn on’ the physical world – so moving this to a true visual browsing behaviour. We will start to associate consumer-centric valuable, utility-based content with an increasing amount of things in the real world. So moving vertical by vertical, we’re starting with movies, music, books and sports, where every single image within those categories will be ‘turned on’ with the user being presented with an experience that is custom to that image, but also general as far as that vertical is concerned. For example, in movies you could have trailer plays, review sites, price comparisons and really strong, independent content related to that film’s public images.

So by turning on billions of images around the world, we’re looking to shift behaviour from a reactive, interactive Blipping experience to a proactive, Blipping visual browsing experience that potentially happens multiple times per day, triggered by our instantaneous curiosity about the world around us. Simply look, and learn.

And ‘visual search’ is the right term for that. Now, we will not turn the world on overnight, but we do expect to be doing it and moving through verticals very quickly. We’ll be sure to inform the consumer about what is interactive, when, and to manage their expectations about how quickly and with what degree of coverage they can expect and what capability they can expect to be present.

How long has visual search taken to get off the ground? As you say, “turning on the world” will take a while.

The whole of our nearly four years worth of experience and investment in products and technology to date has been a massive part of that journey. It’s something we’re uniquely qualified to do because of the billions of data points we have about how people are doing this on a reactive level and of course the combined firepower of not only the Blippar technical and product brains but also the Layar product and technical brains [Blippar acquired Layar in 2014] means that we can now accelerate this process.

In bringing on board more brains and more expertise [helped by the company’s recent funding announcement], it will enable us to do this very rapidly for a number of different skill sets – not just engineers but also user-experience, knowledge and artificial intelligence – there are so many different technologies that will go into the acquisition of the real world image databases and its association with strong third-party content sources. So all of the investment will be going on that area of the business – product, product, product.

There is a very different marketing challenge ahead of us now from what has been a B2B proposition to what now becomes a B2C proposition. The change in audience is a massive opportunity for us. As a marketer, I’m having a lot of sleepless nights about how we push this many messages to this many different demographics, but ultimately it’s just very exciting. We’ve got so many stories to tell to so many different demographics in a very specific way now.

How will visual search benefit your magazine media clients?

What we see this doing is dramatically turbo-charging the consumer awareness downloads and audience that these magazine clients will have access to. The work they have to do to educate their readers on how to interact with content will diminish dramatically because people will be doing it on a day-to-day basis. Of course, we would expect them to incrementally appeal to new demographics and new audiences by virtue of the fact that they’re embracing the technology that consumers are using elsewhere. 

In some ways, this is nothing new – our key proposition for media partners has always been that we are creating a broad interactive ecosystem with, but also around them. Advertisers are not just using us in print, but in in-store environments and out of home marketing, promotional marketing and the product packaging itself. So, we’ve created this behaviour already that lives within magazine brands, but also appeals to advertisers outside of that medium. And they can tap into and take advantage of the fact that we’re doing campaigns with Pepsi that get 2.5 million interactions and building that awareness outside of their own audiences. Ultimately, what we see visual search doing is turbo-charging that with millions of new users that know what Blipping is and are actively looking for opportunities to interact and engage with the physical world including with print titles. If we do that successfully, I feel there are opportunities to hugely invigorate the print medium.

Which industry do you think visual search will adapt fastest to (e.g. retail)? And why is that?

They key industries are partly the ones we’re going with first – entertainment (movies, music, books). We see huge scope here, because whilst they are increasingly digital, they have huge physical footprints and they’re also high passion sectors. The second will be product packaging and FMCG because whilst it’s more of an advertising use of the technology, these products are such a ubiquitous part of our daily lives and we know how successfully brands can create behaviours that are rewarding. For example, we know from some of the data we have that consumers enjoy it and are actively seeking it. Retail and e-retail is key as well. Simply being able to see something and spontaneously buy it though the window of a shop or off a magazine page will be phenomenally powerful.  

The users we see being able to adapt fastest to this technology are those in the magazine media sector. It’s a critical vertical for us and we think the business model provides dramatic opportunities for magazines to not only turn themselves interactive, but to feed their digital content into the real world, and syndicate it to appear off physical objects.

How has the data you already hold on these consumers helped to develop the visual search proposition?

The behavioural inclinations that we’re seeing amongst the existing user-base are important, and a drop in the ocean as far as the possibilities for this technology go. We’re talking about a user base of more than 60 million – that’s a very big focus group. All of that visual browsing data is being used to inform the strategy.

How is the user base broken down demographically?

It’s broadly representative of the overall smartphone demographic as it’s been acquired by such a wide variety of partners targeting consumers across the demographic spectrum that include magazines like Gardener’s World, cooking magazines and even the Financial Times. Put that together with Pepsi, Nestlé and Justin Bieber campaigns, and you’ve got a pretty wide user base. 

What are the short/medium/long-term goals for Blippar?

Our goals can all be encapsulated in quite a simple way. The main business objective, is for ‘Blipping’ to become the eponymous verb associated with this behaviour of unlocking the physical world around us using visual search technology. In a behavioural sense, our objective is to make people curious about the world around them, be able to convert that spontaneous interest you have in something that you look at, and often cannot articulate (which is distinct from existing internet search which assumes you know what the question is before you can ask it).

We’re looking to drive a whole new daily behaviour that is much more instinctive and intuitive. You can’t search for that handbag or breed of dog you just passed on the street if you don’t know who made it or what it’s called. You can’t search for the piece of art you’re looking at if you don’t know the artist’s name.

This is fundamentally game changing for how we will look at things in the world around us. There are so many potential applications of this technology, that we see it marking a fundamental shift in our behaviour.

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