Tech start-up of the week: Von Bismark

18 Mar 2012

Von Bismark's Virtual Mirror on show in Dublin

Our featured tech start-up this week is Von Bismark, a Dublin-based venture that is aiming to be a game-changer in the online shopping space. Drawing upon the Microsoft Kinect’s 3D and skeletal-tracking technology, Von Bismark has created a cloud-based virtual wardrobe and even virtual mirror technology.

Imagine you are strolling down Grafton Street window shopping but you don’t have time or the inclination to go into the store to try on a pair of jeans that catches your eye? Well Von Bismark is aiming to change how we do our shopping – digitally.

The start-up is on a mission to be the first company globally to create true multichannel sales for clothing retailers, that’s according to CEO and founder Eoghan O’Sullivan.

Von Bismark was set up by O’Sullivan in June of last year, but he says the venture really took off when it secured a place on the National Digital Research Centre’s (NDRC) Launchpad programme last August.

“The idea really started to take form for me when the Microsoft Kinect camera came out. I’d always been interested in interactive design,” explains O’Sullivan, a 3D motion graphics artist by trade who has a degree in multimedia from Dublin City University (DCU).

Before setting up Von Bismark, O’Sullivan had been creative director of Pixel Lab, a company he set up in 2005 to deliver touchscreen technology for clients.

He says that when the Kinect was first released back in 2010 it opened up world of possibilities in his mind. “Creating virtual mirrors was a natural progression from here for the technology.”

Eoghan O'Sullivan founder and CEO Von Bismark

Eoghan O’Sullivan, founder and CEO, Von Bismark

3D depth maps and skeletal tracking technology

So just how is Von Bismark deploying Microsoft’s Kinect motion sensor system to help create a new generation of digital shoppers using augmented reality?

“The Kinect is an amazing piece of off-the-shelf technology,” explains O’Sullivan. “My background is 3D modelling and animation and I know something about laser scanning through my involvement with the Irish forestry technology company Treemetrics. The Kinect for me is mind boggling in terms of reducing €60,000 worth of technology into a €150 bundle.

Digital clothing

He says that Von Bismark takes the 3D depth maps from the Kinect’s IR scanner, and its skeletal tracking technology and puts that data into its platform.

“It’s a cloud-based virtual wardrobe, to read a person’s gestures and pin digital clothing to their bodies on-screen.”

According to O’Sullivan, via Von Bismark, a consumer will be able to access their favourite retailer’s digital clothing inventory on the high street from their mobile device or in their home through its platform.

A win-win for retailers too?

And he believes it will be a win-win for both retailers and the consumer. “It has the effect of higher customer retention, increased sales, lower costs and decreased returns for retailers,” he says.

So what is the virtual mirror all about? O’Sullivan, who is in London at the minute, says that the Von Bismark ‘Wardrobe’ was just launched at the Retail Business Technology Expo (RBTE) in Earls Court on 13 March.

“It allows consumers to physically try on the digital clothing from a retailers e-commerce site, take pictures of themselves in the clothing, share these pictures on Facebook, Pinterest, email or text with their friends and avail of deals, coupons or competitions,” he says.

“All of this happens from a really simple to use gesture-based interface that consumers interact with by simply pointing at buttons or waving their hand.”

As for retailers he says these actions will give them “massive insights” into details such as the age of the consumer, gender, physical height and width, their shopping preferences and digital signatures.

“We also did a trial of the Von BIsmark “Accessorise” in Liffey Valley Shopping Centre in December for 28 days. It received over 100,000 unique impressions, 73 hours of one-on-one engagements and 7,000 pictures taken and shared. And this was just for handbags.”

Back to the start-up team, which now comprises David Higgins, Brett Lawless, Kate Enright and Darren Mulvihill, in addition to O’Sullivan.

“There are five of us working here at Von Bismark HQ at the moment, with a nice mix of business, technology and marketing thrown into the pot,” says O’Sullivan.

He also been quite fortunate with the advisors and partners he has been able to surround himself with.

“Louis Copeland is providing me with everything I need to know about the fashion industry and both Ian Lucey from Lucey Technology and Enda Keane from Treemetrics help me flesh out my business and scaling ideas.”

On the industry side he says both Microsoft and Intel have helped Von Bismark integrate their software with its solution.


But why did O’Sullivan opt for the name of a Prussian statesman when choosing his start-up name? “I’ve been nearly 10 years working in the tech industry, both starting my own tech companies and doing work for tech companies. One thing that always annoyed me was the obsession with futuristic ‘what we do’ names,” he explains. “So when I started Von Bismark I wanted to create a brand that transcended the idea that we were a new tech start-up. Our clients are the Hugo Boss and Burberrys of the world so I wanted a brand that would sit beside them nicely, sound like we have been around for 100 years and gave us a heritage we didn’t yet have.”

He says that he believes good branding should be all about projection – giving your audience the tools to project their desires onto your brand.

“It would be harder for our audience to do that if we called ourselves Virt-Mir or something similar! That and my favourite historical character of the 19th century was Otto Von Bismarck!”

While Von Bismark graduated from the NDRC Launchpad programme in December, he also says that being part of the iGap programme in Dublin was the “single best education” he had ever received.

“It really gave me deep insights into what it takes to understand and implement practices that allow you to test your product in the market quickly and scale it fast. Speakers like Eric Ries [author of The Lean Startup] and Sean Ellis completely revolutionised my thinking around this.”

He says that the iGap programme didn’t come soon enough for his start-up Tender3D.

“It was in its death throes as we were going through the programme, but it made an excellent, if painful, case study proving out all of the theories that were been propagated to us during iGap. Since then I’ve been able to implement what I’ve learned in Von Bismark, which has really helped us to go to market extremely quickly since we started.”


Von Bismark has already received funding from the NDRC and the Lucey Technology Fund.

“The NDRC gave us the seed round and office space we needed to get the business off the ground back in August and the Lucey Technology Fund allowed us to take our prototype and turn it into the fully commercial product we are now releasing to market.

As well as this, Von Bismark is currently in the early stages of a funding round.

Says O’Sullivan: “Funding obviously allows you to supercharge your growth rate but can be extremely frustrating in the amount of time it burns every day, when you should be winning customers and building your business. So it can be a real juggling act to make sure you aren’t taking your eye off the ball. I’ve seen companies with great products get themselves so tied up in knots raising finance that they have missed the original opportunity by the end of a round.”

Growth plans

So what’s the plan for the rest of 2012? O’Sullivan is predicting that this will be the year of high-street and online convergence for retail.
“As consumers we will see the convenience and speed of decision-making of the web delivered into the physical space of the high street,” he asserts. “We are delivering our high-street solution – the Von Bismark ‘Wardrobe’ – into stores this year.”

And while the company is in London to showcase its wares at the innovation segment of the RBTE, he says the team will also be talking to some large British retailers about delivering its solution.

“Tomorrow we will be at the London Web Summit. We’re hoping to see great tech companies making global waves,” he says.

Challenges at the outset

As for challenges to setting up a business, O’Sullivan says it’s not for the faint hearted.

“Building a team, selling to clients, delivering technology and executing all take time so be prepared to put a year aside and take no money for the pleasure of doing that. If you start with that mind set you’ll be ready to take the knocks and get on with it! Eric Ries’ The Lean Startup is a great starting point. It helps you understand the science of building a business.”

As for entities that have given Von Bismark support, O’Sullivan says that the NDRC’s Launchpad is the reason the company exists.
“Without their support, both financially and from the people who run it we would have never gotten off the ground.”

And what would O’Sullivan say to other tech self-starters out there right now? “Prove the ROI of your product as quickly as possible. There are lots of fantastic ideas out there but it’s the businesses who track their metrics and prove where they add value that make it to the other side.”

Carmel Doyle was a long-time reporter with Silicon Republic