Three months ago, 25-year-old Alexey Moiseenkov was working at Russian internet giant Mail.Ru when he had the idea to create an app that could stylise any photo at the tap of a button. Unlike other photo-editing tools that manipulate the image itself, Moiseenkov’s idea was to use deep learning to create totally new images out of people’s photos.
A piece of open source code sparked the idea, which Moiseenkov and his colleague adapted to produce works of art in seconds. The result was Prisma, an app that uses machine learning to transform pictures into works of art.
“It started as an idea, not a big business plan,” says Moiseenkov, thinking about Prisma’s inception. “We wanted to bring the opportunity to users to create beautiful images and that’s all.” Two months later Moiseenkov had quit his job and was dedicating all of his time to the app, which took off almost immediately after its launch.
Prisma, which was first available on iOS, has been downloaded 10 million times in just five weeks. It shot to the top of Apple’s charts for photo and video apps in 54 countries, and is the number one app overall in 12 countries’ stores, according to App Annie.
“Nobody in the team expected it to grow like that in several weeks,” says Moiseenkov.
The work of Moiseenkov and a nine person team based in Moscow, Prisma uses neural network processing to recreate users’ pictures in the style of famous works of art, including those by Edvard Munch, Picasso and Van Gogh. The method has been used by researchers, including Google, to create similar images before, but Prisma is the first example of the technology working so quickly and in an app available to the public.
Unlike Instagram and other photo editing tools, which tweak features of an image such as tone, lighting, and colour, the technology behind Prisma reads the elements of a photo and paints them again in a new style.
“It completely redraws the image from scratch,” says Moiseenkov.
Still in its early days, the team at Prisma has plans to reach a few milestones very quickly. It this week launched an APK beta version for Android and has plans to introduce Prisma for video within “several weeks”. “There will be a lot of very interesting releases pretty quickly,” says Moiseenkov.
The startup has already begun monetising the free app through sponsored filters. Early partners include the taxi app Gett and toiletries company Palmolive, and there could be more to come as Prisma expands the number of styles from the current 33 to as many as 50.
Prisma completed its first round of funding at the end of June with investment from Mail.Ru. But Moiseenkov is already looking further afield than Moscow – in particular towards Silicon Valley.
“The startup community in Moscow is just starting,” he says. “It’s not like the Bay Area or Berlin, it’s still growing up.”
He recently spent a week in the Bay Area, and admits to having “a friendly talk [with Facebook] about some integration, maybe. But I can’t disclose any more.”