Di – Swedish financial site – Published:January 18, 2020
After just over ten years of revenue darkness, Visage Technologies began selling its technology to analyze facial images. “It was our breakthrough,” says Jörgen Ahlberg. Photo: Henrik Lenngren
It started out as a less lucrative hobby business for some researchers who needed to “code off”.
Today, Visage Technologies has sales of SEK 42 million, and the company’s face recognition software is used in everything from makeup test apps to bathroom mirrors.
Jörgen Ahlberg flips through a thumbs-up book from the early 2000s when he suddenly shakes. On a black and white page, his own face is covered with a grid.
“I developed this face-wire model when I was a doctoral student at the university. Today, I know that (photo sharing app) Snapchat uses the same model, ”he says.
Jörgen Ahlberg is the researcher who has been interested in facial animation in various forms for almost 20 years. But it would take many years before his company – Visage Technologies – found a way forward in terms of sales and profitability.
“For a long time, my two colleagues and I saw the company as a fun hobby. We were happy tech nerds who developed fun programs, but there were also programs that basically nobody wanted. Some year we may have had sales of SEK 300,000 but in 2008 we also had zero sales. ”
What we take for granted today – to follow facial movements in apps – was pure science fiction at this time. The East Gothic trio was early on the ball, even maybe too early.
“It took us ten years to realize that we didn’t offer anything that the market demanded. When we eventually shifted our focus from animation to analysis of facial images, analysis we developed for internal use to get our facial models moving, only then did we discover that there was a completely different willingness to pay in that niche. ”
The starting point was when a French university lab wanted to buy the company’s so-called tracking library, ie a software for tracking facial movements. Then the orders came quickly and suddenly you had to hire programmers to catch up. More and more heavy customers queued.
“When Disney launched its new attraction at Disneyland in Paris, when it wanted to create an app where users could see themselves as the rats in Rat Tattoo, it was our technology that made it possible,” says Jörgen Ahlberg.
Since then, the company’s solutions have been built into everything from makeup test apps for Oriflame to bathroom mirrors for Philips. The customer list also includes other giants, such as BMW, Canon, Fujitsu and Coca-cola.
“In some cases, the psychological value is greater than the financial, but an assignment should gladly result in money as well. But over time we have managed to find profitability. We no longer chase the short, small revenues and feel no compulsion to get as many small licenses as possible. We have been given room to work more strategically, ”says Jörgen Ahlberg.
Among other things, Visage Technologies has recently started a collaboration with Australian Optalert.
“Together, we develop technology to determine from eyelid movements when a person begins to sleep, in contrast to available technology that responds only when a person is about to fall asleep. It is not enough to measure fatigue in the form of flashes. We work on the algorithms and measure how fast the eyelids move. This type of solution will be in the cars of the future, ”says Jörgen Ahlberg.
Another trend in the industry is so-called “liveness detection”. Determining whether an image on a face is a really vivid face or some kind of fake is becoming increasingly important the more face recognition is used.
“You should not be able to log in to your phone by holding another phone with a video on you in front of the camera. Then you can use the phone screen as a light source, and see that it is reflected differently in a different screen than in a face, ”says Jörgen Ahlberg.
Visage Technologies – already described in 2002 in local media as a future company – has gone from SEK 8.5 million in sales to almost SEK 33 million between 2016 and 2018. One of the reasons, says Jörgen Ahlberg, is that the company was divided into two divisions – one still focused on facial analysis and one towards the automotive industry.
“Our Automotive division works with ‘vision and learning technology’ for cameras that look out of cars, ie not towards the driver, but towards the environment. We do not produce our own products there, but help companies in the automotive industry develop their technology. ”
In addition, the company’s investment in its own office in Zagreb has proved fruitful.
“The boom for machine learning came later to Croatia than to Sweden, which gave us a golden position to choose and toss among the engineering stars. What has restricted growth at home is that there are not enough engineers – Linköping is full of image analysis companies looking for engineers. In Croatia, it was just the opposite – few image analysis companies but plenty of engineers. ”
At present, Visage Technologies has five employees in Linköping and 70 in Zagreb.
“It was a shocking feeling when we went from five to 15 people in a short time. All of a sudden we tech nerds had to build a business organization without losing the love of technology we had since its inception. ”
Jörgen Ahlberg is chairman of the board (formally the company lacks a CEO), but that does not prevent him from still being involved in algorithmic discussions.
“Most people who have done this type of entrepreneurial travel have released the coding, but I need to get my code.”
Jörgen Ahlberg peeks out the window and is silent for a moment.
“I never became a top researcher of mine. And in the part of running a business there has been much trial and error. But the combination is a niche in itself. I follow the research and see what you can do business with. ”
Owner: Founders Igor Pandzic, Jörgen Ahlberg and Robert Forchheimer, as well as about 30 of the employees.
Sales 2018: SEK 32.7 million.
Profit after financial expenses: SEK 6.3 million.
Sales forecast 2019: SEK 42 million.
Number of employees: 75.