Will augmented reality app Blippar kill off QR Codes? CEO Ambarish Mitra tells all


Richard Branson, Justin Bieber, Cadburys and Wrigley’s are already fans. Have you Blipped yet?

How many good ideas are born over a couple of pints in the pub?

The chances are, millions, but a great deal of them never stumble out of the pub into light of day, left scribbled on the back of a beer mat to be nonchalantly chucked in the bin by the cleaning staff.

But in a cosy pub in Southwalk in winter 2010, an idea was born that would go on to spawn not only a fast growing start-up but a new noun. To blipp.

Blippar is an image recognition phone app which turns images into augmented reality experiences. The app has been a huge success since its launch with brands like Cadburys, Wrigley’s, Dominos, Shortlist Media and even Justin Bieber jumping on the blip bandwagon.

Having launched in August 2011, the company already has an office in New York. Out of the Fortune 500, 250 companies are working with Blippar and 1.5 million people have downloaded the app. Not bad having started off as a joke in a pub.

“My co-founder Omar [Tayeb] and I were hanging out in a pub and I joked about imagining the Queen starting to talk out of a £20 note,” Blippar founder and CEO Ambarish Mitra tells me.

“I was quite drunk but Omar doesn’t drink – he sees everything as a challenge. Three weeks later he came back and had used my image on a £20 note which he brought to life using augmented reality technology.

“We continued playing with it and a month later we had a eureka moment, to create a platform and start by transforming ads and other printed surfaces into interactive content.”

The team at Blippar don’t like using the phrase augmented reality. They prefer to use their own word. Blipping “is the action of instantaneously converting anything in the real world into an interactive wow experience.”

“We do the same as QR codes and 50 things more”

“We had ambition to create a behaviour not just a product.  When this is the case you have to name it,” says Mitra. “Tweeting isn’t called micro blogging, giving the action a new name is a key success factor.”

It took only seven months to get the business off the ground and Blippar launched last August. But it takes more than just an idea and some nifty technology to make a business. I wonder how easy it was to get attention?

“Omar and I of course have two other co-founders, Steve Spencer (CCO) and Jessica Butcher (CMO).  We all have experience of working together before on start-ups. Jessica is pretty amazing at selling business ideas.

“Blippar was a challenge from a brands point of view because we didn’t have a user base yet and they had to take a leap of faith with new technology,” says Mitra.

Despite this initial challenge, Blippar launched with Cadburys as a client, turning many of its chocolate bars into 3D animation games. Blippar offered three moths free to brands willing to give it a try.

One of Cadbury's Blippar campaigns

One of Cadbury’s Blippar campaigns

“Brands spend millions on static advertising; we allow them to offer additional content and a whole new medium. Users can play games, win coupons, read extra content – it’s a whole other level of interaction,” he says.

It’s not just the interaction of the users with the ads, but the data behind it that makes Blippar so useful. Brands can find out if an ad in Waterloo is more effective than an ad in Victoria – at which times of the day and how long people spend with the ads.

“The engagement of the average user is 6.5 minutes. We can say scientifically at which time of day a certain magazine is most popular and on which page print ads generate the most attention,” he explains.

Despite Mitra’s enthusiasm, Blippar isn’t the first technology to use ads to convey a deeper message. QR codes have been doing so far a while now. I wonder if Mitra sees QR Codes as a weaker competitor which could be wiped out by Blippar.

“We don’t say that, we try to be as humble as possible,” he replies. “But the press say we are a QR killer. There are limitations with QR, it was the best choice ititally – nothing else was able to take you to a website.

“But five years on that’s still all it is doing and despite years of presence, adoption has been slow. We do the same as QR codes and 50 things more. Brands have been putting Blippar logos next to QRs on their products and we have been beating them.”

By leveraging big name brands and celebrities, Blippar was able to grow organically with the brands doing the marketing for the app. Now the US is as big a core market as the UK for the young start-up.

“Getting huge celebrities on board helps to bring the concept to the mass market, we had people like Justin Bieber and Richard Branson to drive the idea which has led to a good momentum in growth,” says Mitra.

With the Bieber on board, I wonder if Blippar is aimed specifically at the younger market?

“Today our audience is young entertainment users and groups of hobbyists, into cars etc. But the target is based on the brand, it’s an agnostic platform – you just need a smartphone. It is still too early to say for sure if it only attracts certain types but so far we have found it to be popular with 16-40 year olds.”

If Mitra gets his wish and creates blippable content all over the place, there is still one barrier. Users have to download an app to take advantage.

“That issue was relevant two years ago but people know now that apps and smart phones are made for each other,” he says. “There is no use having one if you are not downloading apps. The challenge comes in getting people to keep them. But there are different reasons to Blipp every day, people can’t get bored of the content as it is changing all of the time so, the app stays on the phone.

“Eighty per cent of start-ups now are mobile driven and 90% of those are apps. You don’t have a business model if you don’t cater for mobiles.”

So what about profits and turnover? Blippar took initial seed investment from Qualcomm Ventures back in January and is currently working on the next round of Series A funding.  

“Technically we are in profit,” says Mitra. “But everything we are earning we are reinvesting and we are in the process of raising more funds. The ambition is to make the whole world Blippable. We are the fasted image recognition technology on the planet and we want to make this a consumer phenomenon.

“I can’t give away the strategy but our products will become more social and create their own community.”

It certainly is an exciting industry to be in – investing in new technologies and making a name for Blippar before the tsunami of other tech-heads get in on the act.

“People are filling patents left right and centre, we are early movers in an industry which has just kicked off,” says Mitre.

“But while everyone is obsessed with the tech, we are very consumer facing. We don’t talk about the technology; we just let it work its magic.”