This interview is part of a new series dedicated to CEOs in Brittany. The goal? Discover what makes Breton businesses so special.
Next up is Sophie Deniel, founder of bookBeo, who discussed with me her world of QR codes, and virtual and augmented reality.
About bookBeo: they engineer augmented reality and artificial intelligence. BookBeo supports you in your digital strategy and offers solutions for web and mobile applications, conversational robots, real-world recognition algorithms, and much more.
Claire Trévien: Let’s start from the beginning: what led you to create bookBeo?
Sophie Deniel: BookBeo was born from observing my children. So, it’s really born in a garden! I often tell my story, because I was with my children, we were bored, and I brought them books. And I said to myself: it’s too bad that the books do not come alive, because it would allow them to understand concepts. And in addition, the book could grow with them, giving evolutive content over a period of time, while keeping its super-interesting educational base. So, the idea was born from there.
I started doing a little research on the Internet: to see if the concept existed already and couldn’t find much.
I did some training, at the time in the Finistère, there was an “EQUAL” personal development program for women to create businesses. They realized that Finistère was a region of Europe where there was the smallest percentage of female entrepreneurship. If you are of Breton origin you know that Brittany has always had working women, but on the other hand they weren’t directors: they were the wives of farmers, of traders, but without their own recognition. So that’s the historical background that made them launch an “EQUAL” personal development program.
And I went there, with my idea to make books alive. So, it was already an idea of augmented reality. And that was in 2005. I arrived with this idea, and at the end of my personal development I was convinced that it could become a business idea.
So I called Telecom Bretagne which was on the territory of Brest. They assigned me a group of students to work on the first ‘alive’ book. We created a communicating book, it was a book in which we added an electronic card with buttons, a Wi-Fi link, and in fact as soon as you see a camera icon in the book – you press the button and it launches a video on a computer screen, mobile or TV. At the time, there was not much mobile.
The students got the first prize of the student competition, and they were up against projects for Renault and onboard cameras and so forth.
The pedagogical principle of the system was appreciated, so after that I tried to find technology that could do the job for less.
I discovered the QR Code in January 2008 and from then on, I was introduced to people who were starting to develop applications on the iPhone. The iPhone landed in January 2008 and in October 2008 I created the company because I had managed, with partners like Telecom Bretagne, to develop the first QR Code decoding app in France.
I presented the project at the Quartz as part of a Carrefour des Possibles and there in the room there were the Britt Beers who were launching a new beer called “La Celtika” and told me “I want your thing, I want the QR Code on my packaging to launch my new beer “. And so that was the beginning of the bookBeo story!
The crucial point was at the beginning of 2014. Because at the end of 2013 we had really worked only on the QR Code and on content management platforms that could be made to measure. And in 2014, we bifurcated, we did a lot of B2B apps and we developed our expertise on everything to do with image recognition algorithms, and development of 3D content. We pushed our solutions not only on mobiles and tablets but also on glasses. So, we worked on different glasses and today we develop things also on virtual reality headsets: 360 ° tools to increase virtual reality.
There are lots of possibilities in different areas of activity. Everything to do with training, for example, is full of potential. It’s really augmented reality pushed towards virtual reality. We know how to develop a set of solutions according to the customers’ case.
Often what I say is that the visible part of the iceberg is the helmets, the glasses etc. But the invisible part of the iceberg is all the data platforms, it’s all the intelligence that can be given to certain data, the apps that are made to serve different apps, different materials. That part is not very visible or easy to demonstrate in marketing, but it’s crucial.
On the other hand, we have real skills in this area and so, commercially, we are wondering how to best exhibit this. Because in a month we can create you a tailor-made platform which is no mean feat, and we can do this for editors as much as manufacturers.
CT: Going back to 2014: was it hard to do this kind of pivot in your strategy?
SD: It’s always complicated to pivot, because it makes the turnover decrease that year. We collaborated with the IMT SudParis laboratory because, of course, we are a small team; we could not afford to hire researchers on these technologies. So, we had to invest in research and development. Obviously, we spent more time on R & D and of course we had fewer customers, less turnover. But it helped us because now we are independent of the technology providers; we are independent of a client or a single client. So, yes, we are small, but there are real possibilities, thanks to this pivot. In fact, thanks to a loan, thanks to the research tax credit, we managed to hold on to 2014, so we were on the up in 2015-2016-2017.
CT: It’s important to take risks like that sometimes.
SD: That’s it, that’s it. And by the way, in 2018, we took a risk again. We have finished a European project on connected glasses, in the field of e-health, where it is a virtual assistant on glasses and tablet that accompanies the physio of a patient coming out of the hospital. So, the patient, he puts a sensor on his heart, and he puts on his glasses and he has a small avatar and he does his exercises – he has a personalized exercise regime appropriate to his operation – and he emits data: he shares his heart rate, his rate of oxygenation in real time. Meanwhile, the doctor can also have information on his exercise and correct it. So, it avoids hospital costs, etc. In 2018, we did a lot of work on it, and we also looked for adapted glasses, and here again we have a hole in the turnover.
And we said: “the future is export”, in 2018 we must invest on the export side. And we have decided to target other countries. And in addition, historically, we went to Japan from the beginning, so we also said we redo the effort vis-à-vis Japan. We need to push the visibility, push the business partnerships, work with many people who can help us sell our solutions.
CT: Looking back at your journey over the last ten years, is there any thing you would do differently if you could go magically back in time?
SD: I do not know, because it built itself this way. It’s like an aggregate, little by little. I was not a developer myself – I did CELSA which is a marketing school – I could not do the technical part of it. So suddenly, to finally release this ‘living’ book, I had to surround myself with a technical team. And the project overtook me. To exist, I had to deploy a company, hire people, look for turnover, deploy the sector. It was done little by little; I fought; I was always a little overwhelmed. I needed every time to go a little further.
I started with 25,000 euros of capital, while at that time there was MobileTag or Flashcode that raised funds of 11 million euros, and today they are gone. I did not stay frozen, whereas if Flashcode or MobileTag stopped, it’s because they did a big fundraising on an app, and they imposed this app, and then sold ads in the app. So that killed the use of the QR Code, because when you scan a QR Code – for example on a tourist board to see a church – you do not want to see an ad for Samsung. People stopped using QR Codes because there were adverts in the most downloaded app.
We are small, but we are agile: augmented reality was our goal from the start, all we did is change technologies when needed, the path has stayed the same.
I had the chance to make the right choice because in 2008, we have English friends here and they told me, “you have to develop on the BlackBerry”. And this is the only good lucky choice that I made, it’s that I saw the iPhone arrive and I thought that’s the thing, and I avoided Blackberry and that was the right choice because they have also disappeared. So that was luck, it’s a combination of circumstances that makes things happen or not, and I hope that it will continue like this.
As for the next ten years, the market isn’t mature enough. We talk a lot about augmented reality, but its practical uses are still in its infancy. Brands aren’t using it for their own marketing, to sell their products. Some Australians are starting to sell their wines with label recognition apps, but it’s all still very new.
However, technologies are evolving rapidly. So we really have to demonstrate that we are here, that we know how to create key-in-hand services, that we can accompany our customers in all sorts of areas: quality control improvements, information, maintenance, branding, and much more. Ideally, we’d love to collaborate with other startups: if we can find a partner in England for example with whom we can co-sell, partner for a project or two according to the skills of each. These types of collaborations are the future but they’re not always easy to put in place as there can be a lack of trust between companies. There are still quite a few obstacles, particularly in France, but I think the UK is much more open to this than here.
CT: Is there a recent project that you’re particularly proud of – I know you’ve talked about a few already – but are there any new projects that you can tell us about?
SD: I think it’s going to be the project we did for the industry of the future because we worked with algorithms and many open-source things, but also a recognition process. It recognised a piece of the client that was quite complex, quite small, a metal piece with shiny elements, that off the shelf algorithms couldn’t cope with.
And so we did a whole process of parameterizing the solution in the factory: to place the piece in front of a background to set different lightings; to bring in machine-learning and to set a virtual template. There was a whole process to make it so that now the operator puts his piece in front of the iPad and ta-da! It is recognised. And the seven control points are displayed on the piece with tracking.
And we are super proud of this because the customer, who is a big international customer, picked us in July 2017. But for six months before that they tried to find an off the shelf solution, in the USA, Sweden, Germany. They tried to find what we offered them and could not find it. And so, in July 2017 they signed with us – we developed it throughout 2018 and it’s now ready to use. That’s not too bad.
So the difficulty for us is that that’s still long because it cost them 35,000 euro – which does not feed us. However, we could now duplicate what we’ve created and adapt it to a lot of use cases, to all sorts of industries. What we did for a piece, we can do for a package, an electronic card, a whole lot of other things. For big and small companies.
That’s the most recent thing we’re very proud of.
CT: I imagine that with some companies there may be some education work on what you do and all that – is there a misconception that people often have on what you do, what do you create?
SD: We often hear, “we do not understand what you’re doing”. The complexity of our solutions can be confusing for people, because it’s too transversal, we do a little bit of everything. Digital, of course, features in everything we do. And as we adapt for every client, every problematic, we do a lot of different things.
And of course, what dominates a lot of people’s visions of what we do is the living book that started our business. Of course, it’s part of the DNA of the company, but it’s not the whole picture.
And then, the other thing is I am a woman. For example, not naming names, a big client put us in competition on a call for tenders. The specifications were perfectly met and then they chose someone from the industry, who had sold cutting boards, thinking that he was better able to sell a digital solution because he knew how to sell cutting boards. He came from the world of industry, so he probably knew better how to talk to them. And I, not coming from the world of industry, and being a woman, I did not have that credibility. So that’s still a little recurring thing that I find a little frustrating and it’s a shame.
And it’s true that the world of new technologies is an extremely masculine world, and rather young. I do not fit that profile. We must keep fighting to stop those prejudices.And it's true that the world of new technologies is an extremely masculine world, and rather young. I do not fit that profile. We must keep fighting to stop those prejudices. - Sophie Deniel at @bookbeo Click To Tweet
CT: That’s why it’s important that you do what you do, you give visibility. So, a little in relation, who inspired you during your journey?
SD: In my journey, there are lots of people. I celebrated the ten years of bookBeo in December 2018, and I invited those who helped me along the way to share the celebrations. I only listened to those who told me: “Go for it! ». From my best friend who was with me in the garden when we looked at the children, who told me: “It’s a great idea, it really has to exist!”. To the people who understood my vision at Telecom Bretagne and said: “Yes, we will give you students”. To the people who helped me to create my first fundraiser in 2012; even if it was a small fundraiser, they are still here, and they are always present.
And then very recently, we had banking support for our export strategy, for example, where they were really onboard with what we do. It’s not at all usual for them because they accompany only those businesses that make more than 2 million sales. And with my export strategy, they accompany me while I am 300,000 euros, and they are super happy because it’s so different for them, it is a totally innovative universe with different strategies.
CT: I know it’s a fast-moving and fast-evolving world but if you have some predictions about the future of augmented reality, artificial intelligence, etc, what would they be?
SD: It’s funny, because in 2008 we were convinced that what was going to explode was the pico-projectors. We imagined micro-projectors that we would put in jewellery and that would project virtual images around on our hands or on the tables, and in fact that’s not happened at all. So, it’s not obvious at the hardware level to predict.
I am convinced that augmented reality is still the internet of tomorrow: you will snap your fingers and have the information you need at the right time; whether to buy something, or to understand the environment in which you are, or even to work remotely with someone. I think that the tech will release us from material constraints. It’s going to be a kind of Minority Report, you know? That’s the direction we are going in.I am convinced that augmented reality is still the internet of tomorrow: you will snap your fingers and have the information you need at the right time. Sophie Deniel @bookbeo Click To Tweet
CT: Yes, we’ll say, “Do I still have milk? And the apartment will answer: “Yes”!
SD: All objects can connect. Your fridge orders milk for you. The smartphone takes the information from the house. We enter the car and it drives the car. The car meets an organic producer, well it tells you that you can buy your tomatoes there. It’s stuff like that. It’s the artificial intelligence that follows us.
But I think there is also a side where people are afraid of this total connection and say, “the right to disconnection” and all that. And I find that young people are really in a kind of total freedom: everything connected or nothing, and they really master that more than us … even all social networks. And then there are even some who say: “No, we are not at all on social networks and it is dangerous, and we do not want to say everything”.
CT: I think it’s a bit normal with that kind of thing. Even just thinking about digital books and all that, it’s that paper books have really had a new boost a little in reaction because we appreciate more and more.
SD: Digital books, Kindle and all that, I followed them, and I never connected; I always read a lot on paper. But on the other hand, I have always believed in the enriched book. I went to a conference in Lille 2 years ago on connective science, and there were researchers who had made a study on the impact of reading on the brain – how you read a book, how we read a screen – and they said that when you read on paper – text or images – the brain is at rest. In fact, the brain has time: the time to apprehend the text, etc. But on the other hand, when one reads on a screen the brain is zapping, it goes very fast.
And so, the mix of two, it’s great because it’s the ideal way to understand the knowledge of our world. And that suddenly, keeps the real object relevant by repositioning it.
CT: It gives a new appreciation for the things that are real to have that. I think this is a little principle of your app to visit Brittany?
SD: BreizhTour, yes, we developed that. So here it is a geolocation principle: it knows where you are and if there is augmented reality content in the 100 meters where you are, it automatically launches on your phone – an audio guide, or a 3D object, etc … So, it can be useful, when the church is closed: hey presto it tells you the story of the church. That’s it, it works with localization sensors.
It was released in 2014. And it’s one for a wide audience but that we upkeep alone. We really want the Brittany region to take it over because we would like to add virtual reality into it, but we’ve got trouble convincing them. In an ideal world we would have a sales team of 150 people running around the different communities explaining the app and showing them how to add content to it. But unfortunately, we really need the local government to back us. I am going to get back in touch with elected officials working in tourism, to see if we can revive it, because it deserves to be developed further.
CT: Yes, it would be nice to have this for all the visitors and the people who live here also.
SD: We also did BreizhChic, in the same vein. There, it was to try on virtually Breton clothes. It is downloadable. So, there are virtual shop windows, but again it’s too ahead of its time. For example, I contacted a girl who creates hats, and I said to her: “it makes you a virtual showcase and so suddenly everyone internationally can try on your hat”. And of course, we take a picture with this hat, we broadcast it on social networks or send by email etc. And she was afraid that the image of her hats would escape her, that people would tarnish it by pulling faces etc.
CT: People will do that even if they do not have this app. You cannot control what’s going on with your clothes once they’re bought.
SD: That’s the whole problem of the fear of digital broadcasting. And I said, “But it’s going to push sales! You can’t afford a real shop window and so this gives you a virtual one” But in fact, it’s not so obvious for creators.
So just like BreizhTour, we really need more funds and means to push BreizhChic further.
On the positive side, we have the Breton museum of Quimper on there, with all the Breton costumes of Finistère to try on, and with BreizhTour, we have a fun and educational tour of Brittany.
CT: So, my final question is: what does the future hold for bookBeo? Are there particular things in perspective?
SD: I would like to cite the Early Metrix report. There is a huge potential in the two sectors they analysed, which were the industry of the future and connected transport. We feel – what I told you earlier about our innovative process – that it is necessary to duplicate what we’ve created. We must push it.
The problem I have for 2019 is the means. So here I am looking for corporate partnerships or fundraising to really roll out the business: hire more people and grow the business. That’s really the future and the need is the means.