In 2015, we interviewed the CEO of then little known visual search company Visenze. Four years later, after raising $20 million in a series C and announcing a deal with Samsung, we caught with Oliver Tan to see how things have changed for his company, the technology involved, the marketplace and more
Last time we talked, in 2015, ViSenze was just starting. Four years later and you are now on your Series C, with about 80 employees worldwide. How would you describe the last four years for your company?
The last four years have been tremendous, and it’s been quite the journey as we
see ourselves as pioneers in the visual commerce space. It’s also been very exciting to see visual search finally becoming mainstream. As we see more and more companies adopting visual search, it reminds us why we started ViSenze in the first place and motivates us to continue striving towards our mission, which is making sense of the visual world. We’ve worked through many challenges over the last four years (and since the founding of ViSenze) and all have made us a better and stronger company.
What did you need to change to the development plans that you had not anticipated?
Throughout the years we learned the importance of marrying visual analytics with data science. There was a lot of trial and error, but merging the two allowed us to leverage insights to augment our algorithm models and make better, more accurate predictions.
Are you under the impression that regarding visual search, consumers are adopting faster than merchants?
Consumers, especially Millennials, are definitely adopting visual search very quickly. In fact, we did research in 2018 that found that 62% of Millennial shoppers want visual search to be a part of their shopping experience. However, retailers and brands have also quickly realized the importance and value of visual search capabilities, and can now deliver better product recommendations and more personalized experiences. As more brands adopt to visual search, it will become the new norm for consumers.
Looking at the technology, how would you qualify the last four years? Has visual search technology greatly evolve in performance or has advances in image recognition stagnate?
The growing availability of various search and image recognition tools has progressed the market as a whole. This has been fueled by stronger, more economical computing power in the cloud and distributed architectures. Visual search has permeated across multiple industries; e-commerce, intellectual property, industrial automation, autonomous driving, and more. Advancements in computer vision will continue, especially in facial recognition, and we’ll see more innovation when it comes to visual search and discovery.
ViSenze is an increasingly competitive space with lower barriers for entry on one side and the world’s most formidable companies (Google, Amazon, IBM, Microsoft) on the other. How do you position yourself to stand out and grow?
The democratization of AI has increasing made tools more freely available for technology companies to become users. The path to AI has been paved by data, and we continue to double down on training our own models with real data (both from clients and partners) so we can stay ahead of the competition and sharpen our edge in verticals that we focus on – which is retail primarily. One concern with larger companies is their ability to properly protect data, and we feel that our strong data protection governance gives our clients and partners confidence in our ability to maintain their trust. We know that our clients share sensitive data with us, therefore we take privacy very seriously and ensure that it’s only used for intended purposes.
Have you experienced a vast difference in demand for visual search between Asian, European and North American market, and if so, by which one and why?
North America and Europe have always been ahead of the curve, however, Asian markets have caught up fast in visual search adoption. Some markets like South Korea and ASEAN are very innovative and have created wonderful customer experiences, especially on mobile devices. One reason is that most Asian countries already have a mobile-first mentality, and the convergence of mobile, commerce, and AI has shown to be very effective on mobile devices.
Since we last talked, voice search has made an impressive entry via mostly Google Home and Amazon Alexa. Do you see it as a threat or a complement to visual search?
Voice search has made impressive strides into the homes of consumers, however, despite its promise, voice commerce only accounts for 1% of e-commerce sales today. I see text, voice, and visual search as complementary to each other rather than competitive. It is about availability, choices, and convenience to consumers and each offer different benefits. Obviously, in product categories like fashion, which tend to be more visual than the rest, visual search naturally tends to outperform text and voice search.
IoT was a big promise four years ago but seems to be taking longer to adopt than expected. Do you still see it as an immediate opportunity or maybe one that is better left to voice search?
I don’t see the two as a fair comparison. IoT naturally has taken longer because of the structural restrictions like government regulation and privacy concerns, on top of the technical challenges such as constant connectivity and data security. Voice and image search, on the other hand, are mostly on personal devices and permission-based. However, I do see both voice and image recognition being increasingly integral to IoT devices or platforms. For example, facial recognition software applications are a common feature in many IoT devices and wearables today.
Does ViSenze plan to work more closely with cell phone manufacturers? Could you elaborate on your plans and how this will work?
With massive saturation in many mature mobile markets, the only way for smartphone manufacturers to maintain or gain market share is by not only introducing more models, but also improving their ecosystems with premium content, services, and applications. Smartphone devices have been integrating smart AI agents, like image-sensing algorithms, for some time now and we see visual shopping as a necessity for consumers. Any consumer today can use their smartphone camera to take pictures of products that inspire them, but giving them the ability to purchase that product takes it to the next level. This is why we have chosen to partner with smartphone manufacturers as we see this as a critical step towards improving the mobile shopping experience.
Looking ahead at the next 4+ years, where do you see ViSenze and visual search?
I see the world of commerce being further simplified by AI-powered image search and recognition tools, as well as these insights helping us better understand consumer preferences. I see ViSenze at the forefront of this as we plan to continue innovating and creating new use cases and applications, ultimately helping consumers search and discover the visual world more intelligently.
Author: Paul Melcher
Paul Melcher is the founder of Kaptur and Managing Director of Melcher System, a consultancy for visual technology firms. He is an entrepreneur, advisor, and consultant with a rich background in visual tech, content licensing, business strategy, and technology with more than 20 years experience in developing world-renowned photo-based companies with already two successful exits.