Startups

Prisma shifts focus to b2b with an API for AI-powered mobile effects

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The startup behind the Prisma style transfer app is shifting focus onto the b2b space, building tools for developers that draw on its expertise using neural networks and deep learning technology to power visual effects on mobile devices.

It’s launched a new website, Prismalabs.ai, detailing this new offering.

Initially, say Prisma’s co-founders, they’ll be offering an SDK for developers wanting to add effects like style transfer and selfie lenses to their own apps — likely launching an API mid next week.

Then, in the “next month or so”, they also plan to offer another service for developers wanting help to port their code to mobile. This was, after all, how the co-founders originally came up with the idea for the Prisma app — having seen a style transfer effect working (slowly) on a desktop computer and realized how much potential it would have if it could be made to work in near real-time on mobile.

“The first plan is ready to go solution when you have an idea and want to implement, for example, style transfer or object recognition or something like face masks… or Snapchat lenses,” says CEO and co-founder Alexey Moiseenkov, fleshing out what’s coming from Prisma Labs. “If you need this ability we can offer you a ready to go SDK that you can implement in your app.”

Co-founder Aram Airapetyan gives an example of how their AI-powered image segmentation technology could also be used to allow users of Skype — for example —  to push a button to change or blank out the background during a video call. (Meaning this wouldn’t have to happen, for example.)

The wave of augmented reality apps that are coming down the smartphone pipe, driven by more powerful hardware and active encouragement from mobile platforms, could also help generate demand for Prisma’s effects, reckons Moiseenkov, as they can offer object tracking as well as face tracking via APIs or an SDK.

“The second part [of the b2b offering] is we feel that in a lot of companies developers are struggling with porting technologies to mobile,” he continues. “And we feel that we can offer them our own solution that we use internally — internally we have… a platform that can help us to experiment with our research and producing a lot of demo apps for internal usage and choosing the right one.”

They say they’ve been testing the developer tools with “some very big companies” — but won’t name any names as yet.

“We want to explore the CV [computer vision] area and help companies also produce a greater user experience with AI — helping people to communicate easier, to solve their tasks,” adds Moiseenkov.

“We feel that AI can help a lot of companies to improve the user experience a lot. The camera, working with images, filtering, de-noising, a lot of different stuff can happen — and that’s cool. I feel it can improve the overall quality of apps in App Store and Google Play.”

Prisma’s consumer app shot to painterly popularity last summer, offering smartphone users the ability to transform a standard smartphone photo by quickly and easily applying different graphical styles — to create, for example, a pastiche of a particular artwork or graphical effect.

The app achieved its effects not by applying filters to the photo but by utilizing neural networks and deep learning to process the original photo in the chosen style — generating a new image that combined both input sources.

By December last year, Prisma had racked up around 70 million downloads and earned itself a bunch of app store accolades. But it also attracted the attention of platform giants like Facebook who quickly rolled out style transfer features of their own — helping to cap the app’s momentum.

The team then experimented with adding social elements to the style transfer tool, to see if they could turn Prisma into a social platform in its own right — although, given how dominated the consumer social/messaging space is, by giants like Facebook and WeChat, that always looked like a forlorn hope.

Branching into b2b looks a more solid strategic step for Prisma, positioning the team to offer developers an accelerated route for burnishing the feature-set/UX of their own apps, and selling these b2b services with the help of demonstrable AI-powered visual effects expertise.

So although Prisma is shifting its monetization strategy (likely a usage-based SDK for the visual effects; and maybe a licensing model for the platform, it says), its consumer apps aren’t going away. Indeed, they now double as both testing ground and showcase for what its tech can do for other developers.

“Since the start of this year we were thinking about exploring our opportunities in terms of how to earn money in an efficient way, and we decided to go where we can help companies with computer vision or AI — in terms of more consumer-oriented applications,” Moiseenkov tells TechCrunch.

“We focus on effects; video effects on a mobile camera… We feel this is a really rich area for a company like ours. And also we feel that with our apps in the market we can experiment a lot with different technologies and this pairing can do a lot for us in terms of earning money.”

“We have a very strong R&D team,” adds Airapetyan. “We have lots of guys who are researching and investigating what we can do in terms of different technologies and AI-based products so we’ve been working on these technologies for a while.”

The team launched a second consumer app in July: a sticker-maker called Sticky that uses AI algorithms to perform quick cut-outs of selfies so they can be easily repurposed as colorful stickers.

Across both apps they say they’re getting between 5M to 10M MAUs [monthly active users] and ~500,000 DAUs [daily active users] at this point — with Airapetyan describing their user base as “very stable”.

Prisma’s own team is around 25-strong, split between offices in the Bay Area and Moscow. Though they say they’re also eyeing setting up a base in China — seeing “huge” potential to sell AI-related services in such a large and visually engaged app ecosystem.

The team has previously raised seed funding, although it has never disclosed how much. According to Crunchbase investors in its seed include Gagarin Capital Partners, Haxus and Nikolai Oreshkin. (Notably Haxus was also an investor in Fabby, a computer vision app recently acquired by Google.)

Moiseenkov says Prisma hasn’t raised any funding since the end of last year, and is not currently looking to raise — they want to see how their b2b play plays out first, he adds.

On the competition front for b2b CV/AI tools, he points to a couple of big companies in Asia offering similar services already — such as Face++.  He also name checks Clarifai as another competitor offering image recognition, as well as Google’s image processing APIs — though he claims Google isn’t offering developers a lot of choice vs the plan for Prisma Labs.

“We are working on a very, very wide-range of AI-based technologies,” adds Airapetyan.

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