iQNECT breathes digital life into offline advertising
By Benjamin Cher October 12, 2015
- Giving offline media a digital overlay, augmented reality
- Allowing users to buy what they see in three clicks
PRINT is dead – that has been the cry of online media for years now. But while reports of its death may have been exaggerated, the prognosis is not good either, going by the declining readership and circulation numbers.
Despite this bleak reality, Singapore-based visual search startup iQNECT Corp is looking to breathe digital life back into offline media. Indeed, its chief operating officer Niamh Byrne believes that print is not dead, but will continue to coexist with new media.
“There is a role for print, from billboards to magazines and newspapers – there will always be printed collaterals,” she declared. “This also includes TV and cinema advertising.”
People who say print is dead “do not fully comprehend the size of offline media,” she told Digital News Asia (DNA) in Singapore.
iQNECT’s two founders Joe Marten (also the chief executive officer) and Carl Freer had been dabbling with image recognition, but always in the backend, according to Byrne. When they showed a few people their image recognition technology, they received positive feedback.
That was the push they needed to start iQNECT in April 2014.
That positive feedback has transformed into actual business deals, with iQNECT partnering C True in Thailand to bring its visual search technology to the latter’s titles such as Her World, Maxim, Madame Figaro and attitude.
With the iQNECT app, currently available for both consumers and businesses, consumers can scan an advertisement from anywhere – even television – to call up a targeted marketing campaign, or just the products shown, and be able to buy these products within three clicks.
The app is available for the Android and iOS platforms.
Other features are Music Match, built with music recognition technology licensed from Gracenote [clarified]; and an augmented reality capability where consumers can see what it is like to wear an expensive watch or sunglasses via the app.
“We see ourselves as creating that bridge from the offline to the online world,” Byrne said.
The new O2O
iQNECT gives offline media a digital overlay to their traditional offerings, according to Byrne (pic above).
Customers can upload targeted campaigns and list out the products shown in an advertisement or video. This would then be called up when consumers take photos of the advertisement, closing the gap between products and consumers, she said.
The capability is built into the app, but is also available via a software development kit (SDK).
“We give customers a few different choices – we’re not saying you have to use our app, and our SDK allows customers to use our technology in their own apps,” Byrne said.
Beyond visual search, iQNECT is also building a payment gateway. The startup is working with Adyen, a global payment company, to give consumers a more secure way to pay.
“Adyen interacts with over 150 platforms [corrected], including AliPay and Union Pay,” Byrne said.
“We will be like a marketplace, with the brands fulfilling the orders,” she added.
The game plan
Entering the market on the side of the ‘losing team’ – in this case, traditional media – requires strategy, and iQNECT has a few tricks up its sleeve.
“We are starting with offline media – we’re talking to brands, publishers and video producers to utilise our image recognition technology,” Byrne said.
“The second part of our strategy is around fashion search – we are working with A*Star in Singapore, licensing their technology in image capture,” she added, referring to the Singapore Government’s Agency for Science, Technology and Research.
This A*Star technology will allow users to take a photo of clothing items that are not in offline media, and run a search on iQNECT’s available database to find the same or similar items, according to Byrne.
“That should be deployed by the first quarter of 2016,” she said.
The third part of its strategy revolves around object recognition – being able to call up the results for any object in the real world, according to Byrne.
“Today’s predictive search is predicated on the fact that you know what you are searching for, and what words you put in,” she said.
“The beauty of search using an image is that it can come back with an exact or similar match without having to know what you’re looking for in words,” she added.
Full object recognition is the Holy Grail, according to Byrne, and no one has achieved that yet. A key opportunity lies in search technology that can provide results for online images.
“We’re working on a cropping tool for the app, which can crop out specific objects like glasses or clothes from photos on social media platforms, to search through our databases to get back results,” Byrne said.
Bringing all these capabilities to bear for offline media provides a new avenue for engagement with readers and viewers, iQNECT believes.
It also gives a glimpse into the true readership and engagement numbers for offline media, providing greater transparency to a traditionally opaque market.
“The ability to retarget users is key – our dashboard will show, in real-time, what users are interested in via their searches, and whether they went through a campaign video, allowing publishers to show the engagement statistics to ad buyers,” Byrne said.
“This also allows publishers to retarget users, sending them more content that they might be interested in, and adding an extra layer of digital content,” she added.
iQNECT has had its share of challenges since inception, with one being getting traditional media to look at a radical, new approach.
“We don’t have a precedent in the market today; we are creating a unique mobile commerce journey for consumers,” Byrne declared.
“Trying to figure out how to deal with e-commerce partners, getting media on board – all the different pieces of the chain that are needed to make it successful,” she added.
That was on the business side of things. On the technology side, it was the challenge to be more accurate and being able to scale, according to Byrne.
“We are constantly building and improving our technology to be more scalable and robust,” she said.
“There are multiple priorities, but the technology and development team can only go so far,” she added.
Instead, the focus has to be on being best-in-class and not rushing development. “It is a temptation to put it all on the technical team, which is not realistic – and we have learnt that,” Byrne said.
“It is a challenge to keep people on course and not boil the ocean,” she added.
The next play
Moving forward, iQNECT’s plans involve technology, personnel, geography and funding.
On the technology front, besides fashion search, building a payment gateway and its continued efforts in object recognition, the company is working on machine learning capabilities. It wants to develop “a form of object recognition which has the ability to recognise multiple categories of things,” Byrne said.
When it comes to the cropping tool it is developing, it will also need to build relationships with e-commerce players to use their database to scrape information, she added.
iQNECT is always on the lookout for app developers, since all development is done inhouse and not outsourced.
“We are also currently hiring on the mobile commerce side, to help us build out the platform and build relationships with e-commerce and media players,” Byrne said.
“There is also a need for frontend and backend developers,” she added.
iQNECT is already in countries like Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia and the latest addition, Thailand. The focus will remain on developing these markets first, and although there have been talks with partners in Japan, this is unlikely to materialise within the next 12 months, according to Byrne.
“We are doing a pilot in China with a large regional agency network in Asia, in February 2016,” she said.
“We are currently in the process of setting up the infrastructure and legal entities necessary to enter the market,” she added.
On the funding front, iQNECT is currently raising money for its next round, although Byrne declined to disclose the amount it is aiming for.
“We are doing a raise now to have enough money to develop the technology as we need to develop it,” she said.
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