Wed | Aug 16, 2017

Tech Times | App of the year Prisma adds community features

Published:Monday | January 2, 2017 | 1:18 AM

LOS ANGELES: The young Russians who created the Prisma app had an amazing 2016: both Google and Apple called their tool to turn photos into artwork the app of the year. With 85 million downloads in less than six months, and the top nod from the digital giants, how do you follow that up?

By getting more people to use their app, consistently.

Prisma recently released an update that includes community features. Folks can now share their works with other Prisma members on the free app, rather than confining the sharing to the social networks like Instagram and Facebook.

"It will make our users come back to the app more often," says co-founder Aram Airapetyan, 22, who is known online in his LinkedIn and Facebook profiles as Aram Hardy.

Before, "we had no feed," he adds. "You had to make it and share to Instagram or Facebook."

With Prisma, you take a photo or video with your Apple or Android smartphone, and then use the app to paint over in the style of the masters, with one of 20+ filters that range from the looks of a graphic novel to black and white line drawings and watercolor effects. With the update, the finished work goes directly into the Prisma feed, and "the more likes the post gets, the further the post gets, it could cover the whole world," says Airapetyan, in a Facebook Messenger chat from his Moscow apartment.

The new update also opens up finished photos to a larger aspect ratio. Previously photos were only as square, like the original Instagram images.

The last update for Prisma didn't go as well as Airapetyan had wanted. It brought the ability to put on artistic filters in live videos on Facebook, but Facebook immediately shut it down.

"They don't let third party apps stream to Facebook," says Airapetyan. "We respect their policy."

He vows to find another platform for the live feed.

In giving the award to Prisma, Apple called the app and its use of artificial intelligence "too cool for words." Neural networks are used to extract the information from the photo, and create a new image, in the style of the masters.

There have been other apps that turned your photo into artwork, like Pikazo and Malevich, but "they were too slow," says Airapetyan. "We managed to speed it up -- we could repaint a picture in less than a second. That was the breakthrough." (Videos take considerably longer--up to as much as a minute.)

Meanwhile, from Russia, the recent university graduate says he works through the evening (we did our interview at 3 a.m. Moscow time) so that he can be on the same time zone as the United States, which is a 11 hour time difference with California. The USA, India and Russia are Prisma's three biggest source of users, he adds.

Most picks for app of the year (like last year's Periscope, or Duolingo in 2014) are based in the United States. So this is a big win for the Russian tech community, which hasn't exactly been garnering positive headlines of late here. Instead, they usually concern hackers thought to have meddled with the U.S. presidential campaign on behalf of the Russian government.

What does Airapetyan want us to know about the Russian tech scene?

"We're just normal, kind people, just trying to bring some cool features to the tech industry worldwide," he says.

The advantage of starting the firm in Russia vs. Silicon Valley is that "it's cheaper," and "all our friends are here," who they could tap to work, he said.

Airapetyan and co-founder/CEO Alexy Moiseenkov have a team of 15 people working with them, including two staffers in an office in San Francisco, but the co-founders spend most of their time working from their apartments.

"The traffic in Moscow is really bad," says Airapetyan. "I can get more done by staying here."