Chui: My face is my passport, verify me

By Carmel DeAmicis , written on March 3, 2014

From The News Desk

Shaun Moore was one of the first founders I ever met in San Francisco. And I was the first reporter he had ever done an interview with.

We met at a Starbucks, him lugging a giant black keyboard and a hefty box of hardware, wires coming out of it haphazardly. Me hauling a MacBook Pro so old they don't make them that big anymore. One of his first questions for me was, "How does the journalism process work? Am I on record?"

It was a welcome departure from the well-trained, experienced Series B and C founders I had interviewed up until that point, whose entire personalities had been diminished to talking points hammered into them by professional PR firms that charge $10,000 a month on retainer.

photo 1 (1) Shaun Moore with an early Chui prototype

Chui is a facial recognition camera that feeds information into a software database. Moore is a young Dallas-based entrepreneur with dreams of making his wire-laden, clunky hardware set into the next Lockitron or Dropcam. He and his co-founder Nezare Chafni call it Chui, after the Swahili word for leopard. The Sweden-based design firm behind the popular Memoto life logging camera had drawn up simple, elegant prototypes for how Chui would look in the end: A small, white and gray box, smooth and discreet. But when Moore and I met, it wasn't there yet.

"Smile," Moore said to me, clumsily handling the dismembered black plastic box, trying to keep all the bobs and bits inside. It scanned my face and made a noise like a droid from Star Wars. "Bee-boooop." On Moore's computer my picture appeared. He entered in my name.

Then he held up the box and scanned my face again. Instantaneously, the computer recognized me and loaded the prior photograph and my name.

Moore and Chafni imagine a whole range of uses for Chui. It could serve as a loyalty rewards program for customers at mom and pop shops. As an automated "check-in" system for students at a school, employees at work, or members of a club. As a smart door bell, which could synch up to a smart lock to allow people entry to a home with facial recognition.

It could be a payments system, a way to record specific video messages for different people who might come to your door, a security system for access to a particular lab in a building. Just like in the FBI/CIA buildings in futuristic sci-fi movies.

Or you could integrate it with smart lights like Hue to set the mood when a particular friend arrives at your house, red for your romantic partner or blue for your best friend, mellow yellow for your parents. It could be used to cross-reference marketing campaigns, rewarding Twitter followers for coming in.

Despite the eyesore that was Chui at that point in time, the potential of the hardware was evident. It was so evident it was obvious… too obvious. Outside of Minority Report, why aren't we already seeing this technology everywhere?

Privacy concerns, perhaps. A camera sitting at the front of counters, analyzing people's faces and documenting their comings and goings with or without their knowledge. When I mentioned that to Moore, he grinned. He'd anticipated the question and prepared for it.

"You're being filmed right now. Look up," he said. Sure enough there was a little camera just above us.

But there's a difference between cameras tucked away in hidden corners of the ceiling, and cameras that you're aware of because they stare you in the face when you walk up to a counter.

Chui's founders decided to alleviate those privacy concerns by making their first version opt-in. People would click a button to get their faces scanned.

Nine months since Moore and I first met, Chui has grown up quite a lot.

chuiIt now is a living, breathing version of the slick prototype that was only a photoshop design last time. The wires and outsized keyboard are gone. Chui could sit on Apple's shelves and not look out of place. The company has raised a small, undisclosed seed round, and finished a trial run of the product at a Dallas-based co-working space.

They have a handful of other small stores that have agreed to pilot test Chui: a gym and a country club in Chicago, a school and a yoga studio in Dallas.

Moore and Chafni went to CES this year, to feel out whether there was enough consumer interest in the smart doorbell idea to proceed with the commercial side of the business simultaneously with the B2B side. "The feedback about the home market was phenomenal," Moore says.

Now, they've launched a crowdfunding campaign on their own website to raise money for exactly that purpose. With one month left, they've already raised half their goal.

At the time I interviewed Moore, Chui excited the hell out of me. Nine months later it's still one of the most innovative products I've seen -- and now it's starting to actually look good too.