Sept. 19, 2022

Augmented Reality Will Be Part of Your Life

The metaverse, the future and what it means for you


Nora chats with Faisal Galaria, CEO of Blippar, a company that has been called an  “augmented reality pioneer” by TechCrunch. Blippar productizes augmented reality and builds tools to allow companies and individuals to create AR for any environment. Their new platform has enabled brands including Pepsi, Rockstar, Hulu, and General Mills to bridge the physical and digital worlds. Faisal tells us why believes that AR will be essential to what he calls “the real-world metaverse.” For more info on our presenting sponsor, check out realvision.com/businesscasual

 

Host: Nora Ali

Producer: Olivia Meade   

Video Editor: Sebastian Vega

Production, Mixing & Sound Design: Daniel Markus

Music: Daniel Markus & Breakmaster Cylinder

Fact Checker: Kate Brandt 

Senior Producer: Katherine Milsop

VP, Head of Multimedia: Sarah Singer 

 

Full transcripts for all Business Casual episodes available at https://businesscasual.fm

Transcript

Nora Ali: For Morning Brew, this is Business Casual, bringing you convos with people you know, and some you may not know yet, to make business less intimidating. Because money talks, but it does not have to be dull. I'm your host, Nora Ali. Now, let's get down to business.

What do you think of when you think of augmented reality? Probably something like Pokemon Go. If you recall, a few years ago, it was such a big phenomenon that there were reports of pedestrians getting hit by cars because they were trying to catch them all in the middle of the street. You might also think of the filters on TikTok, Instagram, or Snapchat that give you a saucy makeup look or allow you to share images behind you via a green screen. It sounds like it's all fun and games, and maybe you don't believe we actually need any of that, but it turns out augmented reality has consequential real life applications, making it a big business across industries. From life-saving applications like demonstrations of open heart surgery in a medical school classroom to consumer-facing use cases like being able to visualize and customize a car in your driveway before you even purchase it.

Our guest today, Faisal Galaria, is the CEO of a company called Blippar. He believes that augmented reality will be essential to our lives and what he calls the real-world metaverse, or putting digital content in the real world around us. This real-world metaverse might be a lot closer and a lot more practical than you might expect. As Faisal told us, billions of smartphones today are capable of running augmented reality experiences pretty much instantaneously, and social media companies like Snap have made AR a priority beyond just those filters for your face. And they're not alone. Major companies all over the world from Disney to Porsche are continuing to build AR experiences.

So what does Blippar do? Simply put, Blippar provides companies and individuals with all the tools they need to build AR experiences for any environment. Their clientele includes big brands like Pepsi, Rockstar, Hulu, General Mills. But it has not been an easy road. Founded in 2011, Blippar was a little bit ahead of its time and faced a collapse in 2018. Faisal joined Blippar in 2019 and was tasked with turning the company around. He brought execution experience from having held senior positions at Spotify and Skype to put the company back on track, leading up to to a $5 million funding round in March of 2021. A slow but steady comeback for a company that was once valued at $1.5 billion dollars. We'll find out how Faisal is fueling this comeback, and how AR will actually impact our lives after the break.

Faisal, welcome to Business Casual. There's a lot for us to get to on the AR front, but first, a very quick little icebreaker. It's called OG Occupations. So, Faisal, what was your very first job? Your first occupation.

Faisal Galaria: I haven't been asked that for a long time. Back as a teenager, I used to be really into photography. And so I worked in a camera shop on Saturdays, selling SLR cameras, and on some days as a photographer. I had a side hustle as a wedding photographer.

Nora Ali: Oh my gosh. That's incredible. Do you still do photography, or that's long in the past?

Faisal Galaria: I've got three young kids who are, thankfully, very photogenic. So to the extent I'm still interested in taking photos of them and capturing them.

Nora Ali: From wedding photography to augmented reality. So let's get into it. Let's start with some definitions. We've all heard AR and VR before. What is the fundamental difference between augmented reality and virtual reality, to start?

Faisal Galaria: For virtual reality, you put on a headset and that obfuscates you from the real world that we occupy all the time. It's really good for full immersion. It might be for a game, for example. Augmented reality is putting digital content on the world around us, as opposed to taking us to a third place. It could be that you are in a lecture theater at university and seeing something in front of you that the teacher or the lecturer is talking about. Imagine if you are doing medicine and you could see a heart in front of you, but while still being present in the lecture theater. Or you're shopping and you want to see what a jacket or some makeup looks like on you in the real world. As opposed to it being virtual reality, where you put your helmet on or your visor on and suddenly you feel like you are in a completely different place.

Nora Ali: AR is a lot more accessible. What would you say is the main hardware right now through which we experience AR? Is it just our cell phones still?

Faisal Galaria: There are five billion phones today, smartphones, that are capable of running augmented reality experiences. So, by far, it's the most popular way of experiencing augmented reality is through a smartphone. Basically, any smartphone that's less than seven years old, be it Android or iOS, will either have ARKit or ARCore built in natively into the technology stack. AR will just work in the browser spontaneously without any further equipment or apps required.

Nora Ali: I was watching this video from a few years ago...Jim Cramer was on CNBC talking about Blippar. He was very bullish on it.

Jim Cramer: I think this is really the next frontier in mobile advertising. And beyond that, the company seems to be well on its way to becoming a kind of visual version of Google.

Nora Ali: This was before it collapsed and was rebuilt, which we'll get to. And then, in that conversation, the cofounder and the previous CEO at the time had said to Jim Cramer...he said it was more akin to visual discovery versus visual search. How would you describe what Blippar is trying to do with AR? Is it more discovery or more search?

Faisal Galaria: Blippar pioneered augmented reality starting back in 2011, and created a number of technologies along the way, including augmented reality. But we also did a lot of work historically in computer vision, artificial intelligence, and machine learning. Partly that was because it was so early that Blippar had to create all of these technologies in the absence of there being a vibrant ecosystem on which it could build its business and its technology stack. What you described was visual search. It allowed a user to download an app, point the phone and the phone camera at something, and for the phone to recognize what that is. That's principally using the artificial intelligence and computer vision capability that Blippar built and exposed as a product previously. What we've done since the company has been rebooted is to take a lot of that technology and computer vision capability, but we've really focused down onto what Blippar did first and has a real technology advantage around, which is augmented reality. Of course, we layer in all of the technology capabilities that we have, including machine learning, AI, and computer vision, but really for us, what we've done is we've productized augmented reality and specifically built tools to allow third parties to build augmented reality and publish those to any environment.

Nora Ali: Can you give me some examples of those third parties, your customers, that come to Blippar? They say, "We have a need for this augmented reality technology." What are the use cases? What are they trying to solve for?

Faisal Galaria: We've got thousands of users. They come in three major buckets, Nora. The first one is what I call bedroom developers. Those are people...it's the creative community that are building AR experiences, either because it's their small business, or fun, or as part of some kind of education that they're doing. An example of that might be people who are building greeting cards applications. You hold your phone over either a physical greeting card or a virtual greeting card and things happen. It could be music playing. It could be balloons popping out. It could be photos of this other person coming out. You can build some pretty cool augmented reality experiences very simply using our tool set. Those folks are principally using our no code platform, which is called Blip Builder. It's a very easy drag and drop platform.

Then, we have professional users who use our web SDK tool. Those are principally agencies, brands, and professional developers and creatives who are building for a client. That could be a brand, whether it's a Kellogg's, whether that's AT&T or Disney or Porsche. Almost every company in the world now is starting to build AR experiences. Those are being built either in-house or by their creative agency, and they're using a tool set like our web SDK to build that. That's the engine in which we build those experiences. And then the last category are people that need a fully managed service who come with an idea, but say, "Can you leverage your experience of having built 20,000 AR experiences? And the fact that you've built this engine yourselves, can you help us build a wow experience?" And we have a Studio B that can do that for them and build wow, marquee-type experiences for clients directly.

Nora Ali: I liked your greeting card example. That's something we can all imagine. But are there any standout examples for the coolest ways you've seen people use Blippar technology to create these AR experiences?

Faisal Galaria: I'm a bit of a motor enthusiast, so every time we get a Porsche or a Renault or...we have Buick as well at the moment working with us. When it allows you to see what a new car is going to look like and you can put that in your lounge, in your garden, in your drive. It's a full-sized model and you can walk around it. You can open the doors. You can change the colors. You can change the rims. You can inspect the car and change the mirrors to chrome. When you can do all of that and see what would otherwise be an experience that you'd have to go into a showroom to experience, when you can do that and see what it's going to look like in your own driveway, that for me is always a wow moment. I love those.

Another one that comes to mind, Nora, is we were involved during lockdown of helping OnePlus, which is one of the world's largest phone manufacturers in the world, launch a new phone. OnePlus are a [inaudible] phone that are particularly big in the emerging markets, and they're based in China. What they normally do is invite a thousand journalists to Shenzhen or Shanghai to do a big launch in their exhibition center with the CEO at the front with music and dancers and all kinds of pyrotechnics going on, and they announce and launch a new phone. But of course, during lockdown, nobody could get to China, and trying to do this kind of 1,000 person in-person launch was impossible. So they had the idea of doing it in augmented reality. Taking the CEO and that half-hour extravaganza from the exhibition center in Shenzhen to the journalist's environment. In their office, in the kitchen, in their friend's back garden, wherever.

For the first time, we did a live AR broadcast where the CEO, Carl Pei, announced a new phone in that 30-minute-long extravaganza. It was meant to be to a thousand journalists. In the end, such was demand from the OnePlus fans to access and be part of this experience that over seven million people saw that experience. We had to dimension our systems to be able to handle seven million requests per second. We consumed 27,000 gigabytes of data over the 27 minutes that we were live, which is about one percent of India's total bandwidth in any given day. Just to give you an example and idea of how big that was and the scale. When these things are done well and they're promoted, there's a lot of excitement from people that want to be part of it.

Nora Ali: Yeah. I want to go back to the example of looking at cars, because that seems like a very practical use case for big purchase decisions. Instead of having to go in person to check something out, you can view it in detail via AR. You've said before that e-commerce is an important area where AR could be very disruptive. I used to work in e-commerce. We had tried to incorporate AR, and this was around 2016 to 2018. We tried to incorporate AR into customers' big-ticket item decisions like furniture or home goods, the buying process, but adoption, we found, was pretty hard because we were maybe solving a problem customers didn't know they had or didn't feel like they had. Visualizing stuff in their home or even things like browsing grocery store shelves via AR. Do you think customers are ready for AR in e-commerce? Do you feel like the adoption has started to pick up lately?

Faisal Galaria: Lockdown changed a lot of behavior. Of course, people didn't stop shopping at all during lockdown. In fact, most shopping moved to the internet and to e-commerce. But for those big-ticket items, whether it's buying a TV or buying jewelry or even clothing, when you're not able to walk into the store and look at something...What really took off during that period of time was the ability to visualize that TV, jewelry, fashion, makeup, even a car, and see what that looked like. In many ways, the last couple of years has transformed people's expectations and experiences of e-commerce. Now, we're seeing, for companies that use augmented reality in their e-commerce experience, up to 40% increases in conversion. It really makes a difference when you can look at different shades of lipstick or nail varnish and see what it looks like on your fingers, or see what that car looks like in your driveway and make sure it fits in your garage. When I've looked at buying a watch or jewelry before, the ability to see what that's going to look like on my wrist is the next best thing to actually going into a store and putting that watch on my wrist in reality. When I can see it and it looks like it's actually there, it has significantly had an impact on e-commerce and has great return on investment.

Nora Ali: I've used virtual try-on for glasses, for example, to help me buy glasses online. It's very helpful. We are going to take a very quick break. More with Faisal when we come back.

So, Faisal, let's talk about the landscape of other companies that are operating in the world of augmented reality. Snap of Snapchat, of course. They said in a recent blog post that they're laying off 20% of their employees. They're focusing in on three specific areas and that includes community growth, revenue growth, and augmented reality. We know Snap has been...at least attempting to be a leader in AR for many years at this point. What are your thoughts on Snap's continued integration and focus of AR into its products, and allowing developers to develop tools using Snap's programs?

Faisal Galaria: I think, as we discussed before the break, augmented reality has gone through a huge amount of growth and there's a huge amount of expectation around augmented reality. In the same way, as social networks have gone from the written form with Facebook to photos with Instagram and increasingly to video, we can see there's a natural evolution in social media towards augmented reality. So it makes sense for companies like Snap to focus on augmented reality. There's a difference, though. There's quite a fundamental difference between a company like Snap that's fundamentally a social media company that uses augmented reality and has the ability to share face filters and create some fun moments that are shareable with your friends and followers on social media, and the kind of augmented reality that typically is the way that people would use Blippar, which tends to be for more utility.

We described creating augmented reality greeting cards.We work with a number of educational publishers who augment their textbooks so that the content of the textbook comes alive off the page. That could be looking at animals on safari to explaining sophisticated chemical equations and seeing how chemicals react together, to some of the more fun examples of QR codes being printed on consumer packaging—whether that's a can of Mountain Dew or a box of Coco Pops. It's quite different when you can scan that box of Coco Pops and Coco the monkey comes out of the phone and teaches you how to do a dance and that experience lasts seven minutes. It's quite different from a fun moment on Snap. We tend to think of ourselves as having longer-form content and more utility content that's built on our platform. And we're certainly not a social media company. We share all of our data with our clients on device type, browser type, engagement type, and all of that data belongs to our clients. We're not in the business of monetizing our users or taking all of their data.

Nora Ali: The monetization model then is, a customer or client pays to use your tools. Is that correct?

Faisal Galaria: We have two products, really. Blip Builder, which is a completely free to build model. For the hundreds of thousands of users that use that, they license the tool and they can publish onto Facebook, Snap, TikTok, Twitter, any website, and that's completely free. That's our freemium product. It's our [inaudible] product. And then we have our SDK, which I described earlier as our professional developer tool, which is a subscription model.

Nora Ali: Obviously, many of these social platforms that you can provide tools to, they are working towards the so-called metaverse. I know you've said before that there is a fundamental misunderstanding about the metaverse. What is the misconception, and what is the metaverse in your own words?

Faisal Galaria: There's a lot of hype around the metaverse and there's no generally accepted definition of what it is. Actually, in many ways, the definition depends on who's articulating it and for what purpose. What I have not yet got my head around is, almost by definition, the metaverse needs to be meta and therefore needs to be interoperable. What people describe as the metaverse is sometimes something like Roblox or what Facebook is talking about or Decentral. They're almost game-like environments where nothing can move between...You can't move from Roblox to Facebook and into Snap. I don't see what's meta about that. I'd argue that those are almost miniverses, not metaverses. What we do, however, is slightly different. We're about what I call the real-world metaverse. Putting digital content in the real world around us. More like Pokemon Go and less like putting something into a game or a game-like environment.

Nora Ali: Well, what do you see as the evolution or the point of social impact of the metaverse? Because to your point, there's a lot of different definitions. There's a lot of different use cases depending on who's talking. But when is it just going to become this totally accepted, mainstream facet of our lives, is existing within this metaverse?

Faisal Galaria: Again, I think it really depends on which type of metaverse you're describing. I think that, with AR glasses, we're going to be experiencing the world with a lot more information. It's going to be an information-rich world. You can imagine being in a car driving with lots more information being presented to you, whether that's navigation or shopping offers or news or things happening and being provided to you in your field of vision. That's one way of conceptualizing what the metaverse is and, with AR glasses, that's probably a couple of years away. But you can see the early examples already.

There's a type of metaverse which is more game-like, where rather than in the real world around us, the metaverse is something that you go to on your laptop or your phone. You have an avatar and you move around and you attend concerts or go to work on that experience. You can see that happening already. Meta's Horizon products and being in a virtual meeting. Or go and use Roblox and Decentral and Sandbox and have experiences there. But they're fragmented. At the moment, I don't see a way where, in the next three to four years, there's a way to bring those experiences together. No more than you can't bring World of Warcraft and Zelda or GTA into the same experience. They're different experiences and different environments. It's difficult enough to use a Microsoft product on an iOS phone [inaudible] metaverses.

Nora Ali: Yeah. Yeah. For sure. So, we're in this environment where we're already glued to our phones all the time. You mentioned AR glasses and seeing things in your field of vision. For people who argue that we have no need to bring technology or physical technology more into our lives, give us more reason to pull up our phones. We're getting into this almost apocalyptic state where we're just attached to technology all the time. What do you say to those skeptics who maybe don't believe that AR is actually beneficial for us as a society?

Faisal Galaria: I would reflect on my own career in technology, which really started in Skype. I remember describing early Skype, where I said to people that people wouldn't make telephone calls in the way that they used to with a fixed line or a mobile call, and that time and distance would be irrelevant to a phone call and we'd be able to see each other like this, and this would be the way that people would do phone calls. And everybody was a skeptic. Why would I speak to my laptop and have to plug in headphones when I could just pick up my phone and phone calls are getting cheaper, aren't they? But if you think about the arc of technology over the last 20, 25 years, phone calls have become significantly cheaper and continue to get cheaper, but the advent of video calls and now [inaudible] was accelerating and really got its start with what we did in early Skype, where we made time and distance disappear. I think it's when technology makes our lives better, and now I can speak to my grandma in Pakistan as long as I want, and she can be connected to my children and see them in a way that I was never able to see my grandma growing up. That for me is magic and that's the real potential of technology.

Nora Ali: The ability to connect people even further. That is the hope. We're going to take another quick break. More with Faisal when we come back.

Let's talk about the history of Blippar. The company went through the administration process in 2018, which is basically pretty similar to filing for bankruptcy. All the employees were let go. And then they brought you on to fix everything. What was that like at first? What is the first step you take when you're tasked with turning a company around after it's collapsed?

Faisal Galaria: Looking at the team and what we had back then really reminded me of early Skype and early Spotify, where you look at the team that's been there, the experience and knowledge that they have, the technology that they built, and you think there's something really quite special between the technology and the team. And then you layer upon that, where is technology going? And what's been missing? Because clearly we had a great team and great technology, but what was really different about 2011, when the team started, and in 2019, where I joined, was really the ecosystem coming together. So 5G being rolled out globally. The fact that there was ARKit and ARCore being installed onto every smartphone. The fact that AR glasses were being developed. While they're still not out there, we're expecting them out shortly. But the fact there was 5G. The accessibility of billions of phones as being able to use augmented reality. The advent of glasses. And then finally there were some very big moves by companies like Google, who started integrating AR into search so that when you search for, let's say, a giraffe on Google, you can see that giraffe in augmented reality using your phone. There were a number of indicators that suggested to me that the time for AR and for an easy to use content development that democratized AR and made it accessible to anyone, even without extensive coding skills, was coming. And that's what made me excited about joining.

Nora Ali: Did you feel like Blippar was a little early to the market? Because this discussion happens all the time. Does it help to be the first mover? Does it help to learn from the first mover and then introduce a technology after people have done the trial and error process around it? Do you feel like Blippar was a little early at the time and that contributed to some of the issues that it had down the line?

Faisal Galaria: It was definitely too early. The ecosystem wasn't around. It was used extensively as a promotional tool, as an innovative tool, but there wasn't regular usage of augmented reality in the early 2010s, whether that's 2012, 2013, 2014. And nor were phones or the networks really capable of delivering high-quality AR experiences. Cameras on phones have developed significantly. The processing power of a phone today versus a phone in 2011 is vastly different, as is the quality of the screen. And of course, we now have very fast 5G capability. Just to give you an idea of the difference that makes, 5G has a hundred times the bandwidth of 4G, and has 10 times less latency. That's a big difference.

Nora Ali:  All right, Faisal. Before we let you go, we have a fun segment called Shoot Your Shot. I would love to know, what is your moonshot idea? This is your biggest ambition. Your wildest dream. It is your chance now to shoot your shot. Go for it.

Faisal Galaria: One of the things that I'm most concerned about right now is some of the climate change impacts that are happening in countries around the world. I mentioned earlier that I'm from Pakistan. Some of the devastating floods that are happening in Pakistan made me reflect on what impact could someone like me in the UK have on Pakistan, which is the country of my parents. I've spent a bit of time over the last five or six years mentoring early companies and tech startups in Pakistan. In terms of moonshot, I'd love to be able to work with more early companies, tech startups, in Pakistan and help one of those become a moonshot and a unicorn company.

Nora Ali: Very cool. What is the tech scene like in Pakistan?

Faisal Galaria: It's probably underestimated. It's the fourth-largest country for technology freelancers. So it's a huge freelance community. That means that there's an [inaudible] base of technologists, computer scientists, engineers, and programmers who are working...increasingly, everyone is working remotely and they've been working remotely for a long time. It would be great, wouldn't it, to see a homegrown unicorn company being built using that technology experience that they have over there.

Nora Ali: Amazing. I love that. Last thing for you, Faisal. We have a very quick fun game. It's called Two Beats and a Miss. This is just our version of Two Truths and a Lie. I'm going to list three metaverse-related future tech products. Two of them were actual announcements about products in January at CES, the Consumer Electronic Show, in Las Vegas. One of them is fake. One of them is not a real announcement. So you have to tell me which one is fake. Okay. I'll list all three and then you tell me at the end. Number one. Mojo Vision is partnering with Adidas and other athletic-focused companies to develop contact lenses that provide real-time performance data, like your running pace or the upcoming turns on a ski slope. So futuristic contacts. The second one is the Danish-based startup, Tract, is developing a smart eye mask for better sleep. It'll help you feel temperature changes that will adjust to optimal sleeping temperatures throughout the night based on a sensor. Number three, the Spain-based startup Owo is hawking $450 haptic jackets that are meant to allow users to feel a gunshot, the wind, someone grabbing your arm, and even a hug from a loved one. So, again, that's Mojo Vision, Tract, and Owo. What do we think is not real? This is tough.

Faisal Galaria: It is tough. I'm going to guess it's the eye mask company. That's not real.

Nora Ali: You nailed it. On the first try. This has never happened on the first try. You're correct. This eye mask is not real yet, but what I think is the coolest is this third thing. This haptic jacket where you're in a video game and you can feel things like getting pushed, running through the wind. I think that's amazing. Is that something you would try out in a video game, is a haptic jacket?

Faisal Galaria: I'm not really much of a gamer, but my kids are, and I'm pretty sure my kids would love to have their friends wear jackets where they could shoot them and feel like they caused some damage.

Nora Ali: Yeah, totally. It looks pretty cool. There's allegedly 30 different sensations you can feel. All right. On that note, Faisal, this was super fun. Thank you so much for elucidating the world of AR and for joining us on Business Casual.

Faisal Galaria: Great to meet you, Nora.

Nora Ali: This is Business Casual and I'm Nora Ali. You can follow me on Twitter @norakali and I would love to hear from you. If you have ideas for episodes, comments and thoughts on episodes you loved, fun segment ideas, just shoot me a DM and I will do my very best to respond. You can also reach the BC team by emailing businesscasual@morningbrew.com, or give us a call. That number is 862-295-1135. If you haven't already, be sure to subscribe to Business Casual on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you listen. And if you liked the show, please, please, please leave us a rating and a review. It really, really helps us. And guess what? We are on YouTube! So if you've ever wondered what I look like or what our guests look like, full episodes are available at YouTube.com/morningbrewdaily. Business Casual is produced by Katherine Milsop and Olivia Meade. Additional production, sound design, and mixing by Daniel Markus. Kate Brandt is our fact checker and AB Silver is our senior booking producer. Sarah Singer is our VP of Multimedia. Music in this episode from Daniel Markus and The Mysterious Breakmaster Cylinder. Thanks for listening to Business Casual. I'm Nora Ali. Keep it business, and keep it casual.