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When serial software developer Michael Royzen reflects on his childhood passion for tinkering with electronics he makes it sound as though it was a very long time ago. Yet the founder and CEO of SmartLens, a Seattle-based company specializing in visual search products for consumers, is just 18 and a freshman at the University of Texas at Austin.
SmartLens is his seventh app for iOS and he graciously credits his parents – his dad is an inventor and his mom a programmer –for inspiring his early fascination for technology.
“When I was 10, they bought me an iPod Touch,” he says. “When I saw how the App Store allowed game and app developers to invent something new and make it accessible to millions of people, I knew that app development was the perfect outlet for my newfound passion.”
Royzen persuaded his parents to sign him up for a summer camp for building iPhone and iPod games, and having just finished reading Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, he decided to create a game about a Martian whose mission was to defend his planet from the Earthlings.
“I named it ASpirit4Mars and submitted it to the App Store for review,” he says. “A few days later I heard back from Apple, and my heart dropped: the app had been rejected because my Martian character looked too similar to Marvin the Martian, who was copyrighted.”
Crushed, but not defeated, and with support from his mom, a few iterations later ASpirit4Mars was accepted. He says: “On that day in August 2011, I ran around my neighborhood ecstatically telling everyone my app was on the App Store. People were using it, too. Off the bat I got a few five-star reviews and around 2,000 downloads over the course of two years.”
In 2013 he released his next app, Top Verse, which lists the top iTunes songs, movies and TV shows in one place, following up a month later with a second game, Arcade Ninja. A year later he had created NoCrash, a driving assistant, and in 2015 developed RecipeReadr, an app that reads recipes aloud.
With RecipeReadr Royzen became one of 350 students to win a scholarship to Apple’s annual WWDC conference in 2016, where he met CEO Tim Cook and many other Apple executives. It was here that he also learned about newly-announced opportunities to integrate AI and machine learning into iPhone apps, which became his next frontier for exploration.
Neural networks, a core component of machine learning and AI, could finally run on Apple’s mobile CPUs. Wanting to hone his design skills a little more before diving into AI he came up with Ryde, an app that tells users when they need to leave for their commute.
Immediately after the Apple conference Royzen began looking for problems to solve with an AI-powered app, but struggled for inspiration. Then in the spring of 2017 he took up running, frequently taking to the forest trails close to his home, where he had his Eureka moment.
He says: “I revisited the same curiosities I had as a kid, asking myself what was that bird, or that plant or that moss? Then it hit me: nobody had yet made an app that could instantly tell you about what you see. What if it could also let you buy products you see and tell you about landmarks?”
With the tools that were announced at Apple’s 2016 conference it was possible to make neural networks run on the user’s device, a much faster process than uploading an image to a server and running the neural network there. Royzen’s goal was to make his app as fast as possible.
Although his knowledge of machine learning and AI technologies was limited at this stage, he began reading the latest research on computer vision, the field of AI he was working with. Using TensorFlow, a tool developed by Google to create machine learning models, he designed and trained his own neural network on over 15 million images representing over 17,500 categories of objects.
He says: “Through a combination of my optimizations and the new Apple tools announced at WWDC, the neural network can run on an iPhone processor in a fraction of a second. I named this app SmartLens.”
After a year working on SmartLens Royzen had effectively created a search engine for the iPhone’s camera. Pointing a phone at a plant, animal, painting, or landmark would bring up a Wikipedia description. With its capability to read text and barcodes, the app can identify millions of products that can then be purchased on Amazon in one tap. SmartLens also has a feature called Translation Mode, which translates the names of recognized objects into seven languages and can speak them aloud. Launched in May 2018, the app has clocked up around 13,000 downloads.
While his tech achievements are impressive, Royzen admits that juggling software projects and studies took its toll on his high school grades. Nevertheless he views school and academia as a vital gateway for finding new and advanced ideas. At university he is in the Turing Scholars Honors Program, which he chose because the last two and a half years mainly involve research.
“In addition to working on SmartLens, I’m excited to work on state-of-the-art research for computer vision and computational biology,” he says.
First and foremost, however, he considers himself an entrepreneur, focused on productizing the results of his research and making it available for people to use. His long term goals are to create solutions to many problems for many people.
In achieving all he has in such a short space of time, Royzen insists that his age has given him an advantage. He says: “Young people working on big projects get attention, especially if adults have tried and failed at the same task, and working on a project as a student lessens the risk of failure, as you have something to fall back on.”
To other budding teenage tech entrepreneurs his advice is simple. “Don’t give up on big projects, put in the hours, and don’t drop out of school. And follow your gut, because in software the most intuitive solution is usually the best.”
March 12, 2019 at 09:50AM
Forbes – Entrepreneurs