Israeli startup brings out the celebrity in you

An addictive new face recognition technology that twins you with your celebrity doppelganger is now taking the web by storm.

An addictive new face recognition technology that twins you with your celebrity doppelganger is now taking the web by storm.

Developed by Israeli company, MyHeritage, the site enables users to send in a photograph of themselves, family or friends, and seconds later receive up to 10 pictures of their celebrity look-alikes.

The celebrities include anything from Hollywood A-list actors like Angelina Jolie or Brad Pitt, to athletes, politicians, scientists and even long-forgotten historical figures.

MyHeritage went on air in January, and already has 2.38 million subscribers, a figure that its founder and CEO, Gilad Japhet estimates will be around 2.5 million as this article reaches the press. Around 100,000 photos are uploaded to the site every day, and MyHeritage has become the 19th most talked about company on Internet blogs, beating Internet giants like ICQ, which only appears in the 82nd slot.

So what is it about this free celebrity service that so appeals to the Internet community? “It hit a nerve,” says Japhet who personally selected the 3,200 celebrities who appear on the site. “We live in a celebrity culture. People are obsessed with celebrity, it answers a basic human need. They also love to feel good about themselves, and this site allows them to do this.”

In fact, the celebrity search is just one amusing feature on what is actually quite a serious site. MyHeritage was designed as a genealogy tool to help users research and build their own interactive family trees, and to create a new social network for families,” he told ISRAEL21c.

“We are bringing back the missing social unit on the Internet ? the family,” says Japhet. “On the Internet today there are sites to help you keep in touch with friends, and sites to help you stay in touch with business colleagues, but keeping in touch with the family isn’t done very well. We have pinpointed that niche and are building on it.”

Interest in genealogy has leapt over the last 10 years as the Internet has made researching family history easier than ever before. MyHeritage hopes to build on this interest with three new products that were launched in beta in mid July.

The first of these, Family Tree Builder, allows users to build and synchronize their family trees. Users can post photographs on the free site, and add comments about the pictures. Unlike existing genealogy software, this is an interactive Internet-based program. Family members are invited to visit the site and add their own comments, or post their own photos.

“This has appealed to both professionals and amateurs,” says Japhet. “It’s alive and easy to share with your family.”

The software is currently available in 12 languages.

Family Pages, the next in MyHeritage’s product line, is a family-based social network that allows users to create a community site for their relatives. Individuals invite family members to join, and all members can share photos, comments, news, recipes, stories and family trees. “This is a place for the family to meet on the Internet,” says Japhet. “It’s a very rich experience.”

The program also automatically lists birthdays and other anniversaries, and can send out reminders so that you don’t forget important family occasions.

“This bridges the gap that modern life has brought into the family,” says Japhet. “Families once lived in villages and saw each other on a daily basis. Now they are dispersed and it’s hard to keep in touch.”

Since the technology is still only at beta stage, capacity is limited. Those who want to open a family site must currently request an invitation from MyHeritage to do so. There are currently about 3,000 users, and Japhet says feedback has been excellent.

“The service is growing very nicely,” he says.

In the next three months, the company plans additional features including a program that will allow family members to share their medical history. Users can find if they are at risk from any genetic disorders, or keep track of blood groups, in case anyone in the family needs a blood transfusion. “Proper sharing of information can save lives,” says Japhet.

Family Pages is free, but if a family needs extra storage space or additional features, different versions can be purchased for anything from $30 to $150.

Both Family Tree Builder and Family Pages include face recognition technology. This has many benefits, and helps users identify which side of the family long lost relatives hail from, and can even identify who the newest baby in the family actually resembles - mom or dad, or maybe great aunt Doris.

The last in the company’s product line is MyHeritage Research, a search engine that allows users to conduct genealogy searches simultaneously inside hundreds of databases on the Internet.

Combined results are received in real-time. This is a major time-saver, as anyone who has ever tried to find distant relatives on the Internet will know. Searching databases is not only highly complicated, but extremely time-consuming as well. Normal search engines simply cannot do it. The technology is similar to that used for shopping comparison sites, but was developed specifically for genealogy, handling specific genealogy traits like phonetic spelling variations.

The service, which is also free, was introduced in March, and has already been used by tens of thousands of people.

Japhet came up with the idea of MyHeritage because of his own interest in genealogy. At the age of 13 he took part in a school project to build his family tree. He began talking to his grandparents and listening to their stories, and quickly became enamored. “I got the genealogy bug,” he admits.

For the next 20-odd years it was nothing but a dormant hobby, but in 2000, Japhet a high-flyer in Israel’s vibrant high tech industry, decided to give himself six months off to study his own family tree. Japhet, whose family comes originally from Eastern Europe, met family members and distant relations, keeping track of their stories and adding them to his family tree.

“I met relatives in their 80s and 90s. They were working treasures,” he says. “They shared memories of a life that has now disappeared. It was a fascinating time. You learn a lot about humanity and about yourself by speaking to these people.”

For his project he scanned thousands of old family photos, viewing scenes of Jewish life in Poland and Russia that disappeared many years ago. “It was during this time that I realized face recognition could be an awesome tool,” says Japhet. “If enough people contributed their family trees and family albums to one system you could trace your own relatives through other people’s family trees.”

At 36, Japhet acknowledges that he is a strange bird in the genealogy world, where most people tend to be over the age of 55. It is this age difference that gives him an edge, he says. “There has been very little innovation in the genealogy world before now,” he admits.

Japhet set up MyHeritage in 2003 and bootstrapped the company for the first two years. In 2005, he raised capital from two private Israeli investors, Yuval Rakavy – the seed investor in firewall leader Check Point Software; and Aviv Raz, the lead investor in Empire Online, a company that floated on AIM last year with a valuation of $1 billion.

Today MyHeritage employs 27 people. It plans to raise revenues through subscriptions and advertising. Additional revenues will come through value-added services like photo printing, old photo restoration, family tree printing, family tree DNA kits etc.

So what comes next?

Japhet’s goal is to continue adding new features that will keep the users coming. Celebrity search will be enlarged, and MyHeritage plans to introduce a new animated morph feature that will allow users to see their own face being transformed into that of their celebrity look-alike. In addition, the company plans celebrity look-alike competitions. For example, August can become Angelina Jolie month, then users can send in their own look-alike snaps, and users will vote on the top 50. “We don’t underestimate the power of this service,” says Japhet.

He also hopes that that the number of people using MyHeritage’s genealogy services will continue to build steadily. “We want to build the world’s largest family tree-based community,” explains Japhet. “We envisage tens of millions of people participating and sharing with their families.”

Aside from being good for business, this will also fulfill Japhet’s own dream ? to build a global community site with millions of well-researched and annotated family trees where he can trace his own relatives through MyHeritage’s face recognition technology.

About Nicky Blackburn

Editor and Israel Director, Nicky Blackburn has worked extensively as a journalist and editor both in Britain and Israel for a range of national and international publications including The Cambridge Evening News, London News, Travel Weekly, Israel High Tech Investor, and The Times of London. She was the Associate Editor at LINK Israel’s Business and Technology Magazine, and the High-Tech Correspondent for The Jerusalem Post.