LTU Technologies started out as a small Franco-American company set to blaze a new trail in the ecommerce industry, but ended up as a classic example of how things don't always work out as planned. According to founder and CEO Alexandre Winter, the company's original business model was to offer image recognition software for mobile ecommerce. Despite some twists and turns, LTU announced on Monday, Nov. 2, the release of LTU engine/ON demand-a far cry from how the technology was originally intended to be used.
In short, Winter says, the idea was to be able to take a picture of an item on a cell phone camera and be able to buy it, either by phone or later on a computer. The image recognition software would, by analyzing pixels, automatically identify other like images online.
While the kind of technology necessary for this kind of service is commonplace today, this was not the case at the company's inception in 1999. Winter says it was "too ambitious for the time."
When the ecommerce bubble burst around the turn of the century, LTU was forced to change its business model. That change brought a new set of clients that had very little to do with ecommerce when one of France's national police service, the Gendarmerie Nationale, began using the LTU engine to solve child abuse and child pornography cases. Soon afterward, French law enforcement began using LTU to track stolen items, such as works of art, on online auction sites. Within a few years, the ecommerce service had turned into something straight out of CSI, being used to track down child pornographers and art thieves.
Since 2005, when LTU was bought by Japanese company JASTEC, it has continued to develop tools for law enforcement, but have tried to get back to its ecommerce roots. "Today, we're still developing the law enforcement side of the technology, but we're addressing other applications as well, in nongovernmental areas," Winter says.
Now, the LTU engine is being made available as a software as a service (SaaS) model, LTU engine/ON demand, that will allow customers to use LTU engine without having to install hardware or pay maintenance costs.
With the advancement in technology over the past 10 years, Winter says the time is right to go back to the original model. "Now we're getting back into ecommerce," Winter says. "Everything that we needed in 2000 and was not there is there today."
So what kind of technology are we talking about?
"LTU is the image recognition engine," Winter says. "You can send it images to store them in a database. It will compute different descriptors of an image-what your eyes can see-and store them to a database."
Those descriptors, Winter says, make up the "image DNA" and can include color, texture, shapes, and other unique features of a given picture.
"We use these DNA to do image search," Winter says. "You can upload as many as you want to the server, then submit new images to search. Once you're indexed your database, you can use other images to query the database."
For the full version of LTU engine, this means making a significant investment in installing hardware and paying maintenance and upgrade costs. As a hosted service, LTU engine/ON demand allows the end user to bypass those costs.
"On demand is basically an LTU engine, but it's hosted by us," Winter says. "So you don't have to install the software. It's basically the same software, a little stripped-down, but you can do most of the things you can do with the engine."
LTU engine/ON demand will be sold on a tiered pricing model, with less active users (thousands of queries a day, as opposed to millions or tens of millions) paying per query.
Winter sees this model as a way to reach more customers in a rapidly expanding market.
"Image recognition is getting more and more mainstream," Winter says, "and now we're seeing more and more web developing agencies interested in image recognition."