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"People shop through images nowadays," Heels.com CEO Eric McCoy says. "We want to give them the exact shoe, or something similar."
So, the race is on to perfect the technology that will create smartphone apps that easily recognize objects in a real-world environment.
Cortexica's founders spent seven years on academic research before forming the company in 2009. Since then, it has been trying to mold the technology work more like the human brain when it comes to identifying objects.
"Someday you'll be taking a picture of a whole person, and it will identify the different the things they're wearing and offer recommendations," says Iain McCready, CEO of Cortexica. "That's really challenging technically, but that's what people tell me they really want to do."
The U.K. company was hired by eBay to develop an app that recognizes cars from behind and matches them with similar cars available on eBay.
Next, eBay asked Cortexica to develop a similar app for fashion. The outcome was Find Similar, which analyzes a clothing item's color, texture and shapes to find similar items available for sale. Find Similar is now being used by startup app Style Thief and other Cortexica clients.
Superfish, a startup in Palo Alto, California, counts 12 people with doctorate degrees on its staff and has 10 patents for visual search technology. Its technology can be found at PetMatch, an app that matches photos of pets with local pets available for adoption.
Superfish CEO Adi Pinhas believes it will be normal in two or three years to use your smartphone to search for things visually.
"Your camera will be as smart as the rest of your smartphone," he says.
Once that happens, Forrester's Mulpuru says, it will "unleash a whole new type of e-commerce."