This was originally published on Tech in Asia on Nov. 12, 2015.
So many beers, so little time.
With so many options between the hoppy, the fruity, the wheats, the stouts, the ales, the seasonal pumpkin brews – and boy, can those go either way – and splices you’ve never dreamed of, your next mystery bottle could either be sinfully good or horribly awry. Don’t you wish someone had told you before you opened it?
It’s about time there’s an app for that.
Letsee Beer, created by Korean startup Letsee for iOS and Android, uses your smartphone camera to scan the labels and shapes of beer bottles and cans (no draught, though). It brings up the beer’s basic info, plus hashtagged descriptions ranging from #fruity to #damntasty and reviews that other users have left to help you determine whether the brew is worth a try.
The creators hope to do more than build a user-generated database to help beer fans know what they’re drinking before they open the bottle. They’re also utilizing augmented reality technology to bridge the virtual and physical worlds and to nurture a social media network that shows the app’s impact with real users.
“By using the more intuitive AR interface, the users will be able to focus on the user-created content itself instead of getting distracted by cumbersome app interfaces,” Ahn Sangchul, founder and CEO of Letsee, tells Tech in Asia. “People may enjoy sharing their drinking experiences with others using our service, and we hope to encourage them to love beer even more.”
Simple, scalable, fun
Sangchul is a lifelong gamer, a passion that led him to get a PhD in mixed reality system architecture – meaning he basically made Super Mario-like scenarios out of real-life spaces using a smartphone camera as the lens into the game. Instead of going into a big company, he wanted to put his AR tech know-how to use on his own.
He started Letsee in July 2014 with big dreams of creating a whole augmented reality-based web content ecosystem, where every physical object under the sun could be scanned and searched on the internet – versus users typing in keywords or uploading an image to match against Google’s vast archive, a process Sangchul believes disconnects them from reality.
“We thought the augmented reality search could provide more natural interactions on the spot,” he says.
But realizing it was a task too mighty for a seedling startup, Sangchul and his team zeroed in on making something small enough that they could handle but a big enough idea to go global. On one hot summer day, they realized beer was the answer.
Sangchul and five of his friends and colleagues from the Korea Institute of Science and Technology hacked a cheap HP scanner and turned it into a hollow, cylindrical device. Then they began the grueling task of 3-D scanning all the bottles of beer they could find, and then drinking them. For science.
“There are a lot of empty beer bottles in our office. Hundreds,” Sangchul says.
For three months, the team manually input basic info about the beers and built up the initial database of hashtags and reviews. But they are seeking partnerships with distributors and existing beer fan archives to update content when new beers come out, while developing a crawling engine to automate the data collection. They hope the database will grow from its current 400 bottles and cans with the help of user-generated content.
Beer is the beginning
While AR is still newly commercialized, Letsee is a guppy in a lake already dominated by Blippar, a New York and London-based unicorn that raised US$45 million in March and swallowed up Austin-based Binocular, which specializes in virtual try-on tech, in an acquisition last month. But Sangchul believes his startup can swim with the big fish because of its personal appeal with the social platform and sharper tech.
Both companies have yet to perfect the tricky technology, and even Blippar – backed by Tencent Holdings, Bertelsmann Asia Investment Fund, Ribbit Capital, and others – is criticized by users for its inability to recognize objects. But judging by Tech in Asia’s own test runs, Letsee Beer wins the beer label contest, at least.
Letsee confesses that there are still several kinks to work out – the app is a RAM guzzler, the boot time is slow, and they have dumbed down the user experience due to glitches in the tech. For example, after the app recognizes the beer, you might instinctively stop scanning the bottle as you choose the next option, but moving will clear your selection. The engineers had to do that to prevent multiple bottle descriptions from displaying on the screen if you were to scan a few different beers in a row. An update is in the works.
As Letsee’s development has been running on a two-year budget from Sangchul’s alma mater, the startup is gearing for a seed round to scale up the service to cover more beers and start going to market globally.
They plan to monetize through beermakers’ advertising, but brews are just the beginning. With patents in three markets, Sangchul claims he has the technology to be the Google of augmented reality search, where every physical object can be indexed and searched without keywords.
Down the road, Sangchul wants to create an AR search portal, reminiscent of the mixed-reality concepts seen in Minority Report and Iron Man, where information is displayed without a physical screen. In his vision, one day you’ll be able to walk down the street, scan a storefront with your camera, and get customer reviews and other info about the restaurant or shop.
“We can enable visual search by indexing any kind of physical objects and places and provide the information onto their appearance. So we are [indexing] the physical world, starting with beer,” he says.