In an age of instant cell phone photos, kids having phones at a very early age, and social media sites a regular part of every teen's social life, there's been an unfortunate intersection of easy-to-access cell phone cameras, the Internet, and illicit photos from teens. We spoke with Steven White, co-founder and CEO of ImageVision (www.imagevision.com), on how the Dallas firm is helping to make the world safer for kids by providing image recognition and filtering technology which screens cell phones and social networking sites from illicit images.
What is Imagevision?
Steven White: We provide automated, real-time filtering of web content, including images, video, and also text content. We're the first company that leverages computer vision technology to understand visual content, and filter it for the big social media brands. Those websites, who accept lots of user generated content, use us to make sure they're both protecting advertising, their brand, and also making sure they're steering clear of government regulations prohibiting child pornography or other illicit content.
How did the technology come about?
Steven White: We've been working on the technology since 2008. The reason me and my co-founder got into this, was in 2008, his daughter came home from a school play, and received a sext message from one of the boys at school. If you're not familiar with that, that's a recent phenomenon where kids use cell phones to take illicit pictures of themselves, and send it out to others. There have been studies by MTV and the University of Texas which has identified that 30 percent of teens have sent sext images. It's a very big problem, and a growing problem--the same poll last year said only 25 percent had sent sext images, and this year it's growing bigger. So, back in 2008, we had a personal experience with Mitch's daughter. I've got four kids myself, and although they're just now getting cell phones, I thought I'd be helping myself by helping to solve that problem. We started discovering that it was not just only my partner who had seen the issue, we found lots of web sites that were able to use our technology to help them, too.
Can you talk about the path between developing the technology and providing that to those big customers?
Steven White: How we connected the dots, is we built the technology and an application for the iPhone, but we found the challenge with any application, is kids figure out how to go in and disable the application. We started to explore what was the right way to use this technology. What kids are now doing is using Facebook, Instagram, and Photobucket. So, you have to go to the website where they are storing that content, and start there. It has evolved since then, and we're now working with leading mobile OEM vendors, manufacturers of handsets, and embedding our technology in handsets. It's evolved a bit since back in 2008, and specifically in social media I can talk about Photobucket. We've also got other companies under NDA, so we can't specifically name them, but they're the biggest companies in the world both from social media as well as the mobile handset market who are using our technology. It's a very widespread and global issue, which we've got really unique technology to solve.
Is there a massive computing workload to detect those images?
Steven White: How we're changing the game in the space, is how we look at the content and the speed at which we're looking at an image. It's really been above and beyond in terms of accuracy, and it comes down to speed and differentiation that we bring to the table, plus we scale very well. Obviously, to run on a handset device, it must be veyr lightweight. When a user is using the system or technology, you don't want to impact the user experience. So we're embedding at the camera layer, and we detect that and prevent them from saving the image. It has no impact, on most part, on the user experience. If they're about to engage in illicit behavior, we just give them a second to pause before doing so. The average age for kids to get cell phones in the U.S. is 11 years old. But, they're obviously getting younger and younger.
If we can cause an eleven year old to pause before the upload that image or video, or post it on Facebook, Instagram, or Photobucket, that's our goal, and our mission has been accomplished. Speed is very important in what we do, particularly when dealing with social media sites. There, we're dealing with millions and millions of images each hour. To take an example, a social networking site like Facebook sees 300 million images a day upload, and there's imilar amount of video that YouTube might see or which gets uploaded to Photobucket. What's made us different, is we can cost effectively scale the technology, because we only take milliseconds to scan an image, come up with the results, and we look at those concurrently every minute of every day. It's very cost effective, and scales in a hosted environment. It doesn't have lots of impact or operational complexity for a website, and it basically costs them a fraction of a penny to use the service.
It looks like you have some major investors, when did they invest in the firm?
Steven White: We've got Walden Ventures, out of San Francisco, who is our Seires A investor. We connected to them back in 2010, when we were at kind of a crossroads. We had a major manufacturing company using us, and we'd engaged with a network of manufacturing companies who had looked at our technology and thought it was really cool, and a game changer. We got an acquisition offer from them, but at the time, my goal was just to make sure the technology got out there for parents to use, and that it wouldn't just go to a single manufacturer. We wanted to have as many people as possible having access to the technology. So, before accepting the offer, we went to the west coast and started talking to accelerators. We found our best avenue was to join up with Tech Wildcatters. They suggested that if we were interested in venture capital, and wanted to go that route, they could teach us all that we needed plus more. At the time, I had no idea what venture capital was all about, and was trying to understand it. It's a totally different language in that market, compared to where I was, because I came from the telecom space. Instead of swimming with sharks and having no life vest, I decided to learn what I could. I joined up with the Tech Wildcatters, and they took a small investment, and in exchange they gave me lots of mentors and training. I've been very fortunate to have those guys on my side. As a result, we got a very fair offer from Walden in 2010. We started with Tech Wildcatters in March, and graduated in August, and had our offer and term sheet by the end of August. Since then, we have just completed our Series B with Javelin Ventures out of San Francisco, and also AOL Ventures and S3, which are good names. What's been different for them, is there are not lots of companies out there exploring this space, and no one that has the credibility with such big names using our technology. Just on the social media site, all of the biggest names are using our technology, and in the mobile OEM space, it's the same thing. We've got some of the biggest mobile smartphone device manufacturers using our technology.
What are the next challenges you're looking at?
Steven White: I think we're really excited about social media. We've been very successful with doing what we're doing, where we're in the process, in image moderation and photos. We're now coming out with a release in a few months focused on video. What we do for photos we think will be a game changer with video. That's where the world is evolving. Cisco released their state of the internet report, and they say that video will make up 90 percent of the traffic on the Internet in the next couple of years. So, we need to go and evolve to be the first one there. We're evolving our technology to be able to make that scalable. So we're leveraging our technology base, and we're also partnering on the mobile side. We're exited that in the first quarter there will be a line of mobile devices and tablet devices with our technology enabled, so that a parent, or even a conscientious adult can turn a feature on, and block them from receiving illicit photos, and especially child pornography.