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British AI firm Cortexica raises £4m

James Titcomb
The company's visual search engine can suggest items to buy based on photos

A British artificial intelligence firm has raised £4m to develop visual recognition technology that aims to mimic how humans see the real world.

Cortexica’s software creates a “visual search engine” for retailers, allowing shoppers to upload a photo of a piece of clothing and find similar items in stores or shopping centres.

The technology has been trialled at Brent Cross shopping centre in London with Hammerson,which jointly owns the centre along with Standard Life.

Cortexica, one of a number of promising British AI start-ups, is based on years of research at Imperial College London into reverse-engineering how the human cortex processes vision. Its software aims to replicate the process to help computers recognise images.

The company has raised £4m in the last year from Touchstone Innovations, a group that invests in commercialising university research. A £2m investment in recent weeks followed a fundraising last year.

The technology has been trialled at Brent Cross

The London-based company, whose technology is used by the likes of John Lewis and Macy’s plans to expand to around 50 people.

In the trial at Brent Cross, app users would be able to upload a photo or take a picture of an item of clothing on their smartphone, such as what a celebrity in a magazine is wearing. The technology would recognise it and find similar items in stock at various stores in the shopping centre to suggest.

Hammerson is now planning a full test at Brent Cross as well as a shopping centre in France, and sees the technology as a way of combating the ease of use of searching for shopping online. “It brought the convenience of online into the physical space, allowing shoppers to search and look at products from a wide variety of retailers,” said Kathryn Malloch, Hammerson’s product innovation manager.

Cortexica follows a series of successful British AI companies, including DeepMind, which was sold to Google in 2014, and Magic Pony, bought by Twitter last year.