Pop star Shawn Mendes invests in smart emoji app

Backstage before a performance in Philadelphia last year, teen pop star Shawn Mendes and young entrepreneur Akash Nig...

Posted: Dec 8, 2017 3:12 PM
Updated: Dec 8, 2017 3:12 PM

Backstage before a performance in Philadelphia last year, teen pop star Shawn Mendes and young entrepreneur Akash Nigam poured over an app.

The pair swapped thoughts on Nigam's upcoming platform Genies, which lets you create an avatar that changes expressions, moods, outfits and accessories, based on news headlines or holidays.

Nigam, 25, calls it "Bitmoji with a brain."

"We [sat] on a couch going through the app up until the last second and [Mendes] had to [perform]," said Nigam, recounting the experience to CNN Tech. "He then grabbed his guitar and walked out on stage."

"He has that knack for understanding what's trending; what's hot," Nigam said of Mendes, who has been involved with developing ideas for Genies.

The app, which officially launched on Thursday, recently raised $3 million in funding -- and Mendes was an investor. (It's also the first investment for the singer).

Other investors included CAA Ventures, Trinity Ventures, Foundation Capital and basketball player Russell Westbrook.

"It's really amazing what Akash has done to enable such a unique way of interacting and connecting on a deeper level through social media than what has existed before," Mendes said in a statement to CNN Tech.

Related: Apple's latest iOS update includes hundreds of new emoji

Nigam's startup, formerly known as Blend Systems, is now valued at more than $100 million.

While attending the University of Michigan, Nigam hit it big with a public and private group messaging app, called Blend, that grew to nearly 1 million users. Mendes was also a user, allowing him to communicate with fans in real time via public chat groups.

The Blend app featured a Genies option for public figures, but Nigam decided to focus away from messaging to creating Genies for all users.

Existing Blend users will not have to download a new app. They can update the existing app to access Genies, and their Blend chats will be archived.

Genies are powered by the startup's own animation and artificial intelligence platform. The app features hundreds of thousands of body, facial and style combinations to create a Genie. They can also interact with your friends' avatars.

They react to different news events or holidays by changing their expression, clothing, props and environment. For example, a Genie could react to news that Elon Musk's SpaceX landed its Falcon 9 rocket with an avatar shooting into space.

Artificial intelligence is used to mine trending and viral stories from news organizations such as CNN, Vice and Billboard. If users want to learn more about the news event, they can click the headline.

Genies will update and react about 10 to 15 times per day and can be shared through iMessage, Facebook Messenger, Instagram direct message, Snapchat and SMS.

Related: Apple's new avatar patent looks a lot like Bitmoji

"We're a new medium for you to consume what's going in the world and your life," Nigam said.

He added that the company will be careful with how it portrays sensitive news events. For example, after a natural disaster or terrorist attack, the app could link to a list of organizations helping victims.

There are currently over 689,000 people on the waitlist for Genies, including previous Blend users and those who have seen Genies teased on social media.

Genies are part of a growing trend of more expressive emoji. Earlier this year, Apple unveiled "Animoji" on the iPhone X. The feature uses face detection tech to animate 12 popular emojis in iMessages, such as an alien, robot and unicorn.

Meanwhile, Snapchat's Bitmoji app lets users create custom 2D emoji of themselves.

The free Genies app is now available on iOS and Android.

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