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Blippar, Alibaba narrow offline, online divide via advanced image recognition

In a reflection of image recognition technology’s growing role in mobile shopping and mcommerce, augmented reality application Blippar and Chinese ecommerce company Alibaba recently revealed plans for next-generation solutions that promise to bring the real-world and digital experiences even closer together.

Alibaba is working on a way to enable mobile users to submit a selfie at the time of purchase to authenticate their payment. At the same time, Blippar recently launched visual search for the physical world, initially enabling users to scan a sporting logo, album cover, fiction book, DVD cover and movie poster and be presented with contextual information, such as music videos, a place to buy tickets.

“Use of image recognition for mobile shopping is huge,” said Esha Shah, manager of mobile and strategy at Fetch.

“AliBaba is differentiating itself from other mobile payment services by leveraging smartphone cameras rather than passwords or thumbprints,” she said. “If their facial recognition technology is very precise, this could be a secure and unique way to confirm mobile payments.”

Visual search
The relaunched Blippar app enables users to look at any object through the device’s camera to activate instantaneous digital search and receive contextual, real-time information about the product.

Blippar founder and CEO Ambarish Mitra gave the first public demo of the app update at the SXSW festival in Austin, TX.

Blippar has worked with thousands of brands and publishers to create branded experiences that are triggered by objects, magazine pages, advertisements and more. The company claims that it is consumers’ healthy appetite for this behavior that spurred the move into visual search.

The new capability will be launched in stages. When users point the app at U.S. sporting logos and all English-language music album covers, fiction books, DVD covers and movie posters, they will be presented with small snippets of contextual information.

For example, pointing the app at an album cover could bring up videos of the band, a source to buy tickets to an upcoming concert, details of what people are saying about the musicians on Twitter and photos of the band.

The updated Blippar app will available for download on iOS and Android in April 2015.

Mobile payments
Alibaba’s solution is Smile to Pay. It is currently being developed and will launch in China first, enabling users of Alibaba’s mobile payments solution, Alipay, to match a selfie taken at the time of purchase with a stored image to prove identity and enable the purchase to be completed.

Alipay has more than 300 million registered users and handles approximately 80 million transactions per day, according to the company.

“Amazon and Google have tried to integrate image recognition technology into their apps but widespread adoption seems to be lacking,” she said.

“Last year, Target released its “In a Snap” image-recognition shopping app, where users could use the app to photograph Target’s Room Essentials Products in magazines, and those products would be recognized and automatically added to their digital shopping carts. When image recognition technology can better identify images and provide relevant information about them, it can enhance the mobile shopping experience greatly.”

Image recognition technology’s role continues to grow in mobile shopping and mcommerce.

Major retailers such as Amazon, Target and Macy’s all offer image recognition within their mobile applications. As the availability of the technology grows, consumer adoption is expected to take off this year, with scan-to-shop starting to become a reflex for some shoppers.

The integration of Apple Pay and Touch ID for iPhone users makes the experience even more seamless.

As a result, image recognition is becoming a must-have for retailers’ apps (see story).

Scaling up
While the goal is to enable users to point their phones at any item of interest and find a comparable item to purchase in the retailer’s inventory, items are not always recognized or found, resulting in less than optimal experiences.

This is why Blippar is starting small, with a limited number of products that will be scannable.

The company plans to add more items and expand the service to new geographic regions in the future.

The Alibaba solution, which is currently in development, points to consumers’ love affair with selfies. Additionally, it underscores how mobile payments are still evolving, with the winning solution or solutions still undecided.

“There are some practical challenges around content authoring, workflows,  mobile network bandwidth / coverage and last but not the least a very stable hand,” said Vivek Agrawal, vice president at Skava.

“This image recognition has the to be aligned more or less just right with the logo while the application not only recognizes the image but also translates and plays the action that needs to happen when the image is recognized.  This make it very impractical for a crowded space, or a place with low network bandwidth – both of which are very practical issues today.”

Final Take
Chantal Tode is senior editor on Mobile Commerce Daily, New York