Born in St. Louis, Pikazo Is Going to Be the Next Big Photo App

How would your dog look if he were painted by Picasso? Pikazo, a new app invented in the basement of a Cherokee Street coworking space, has cracked the code of how to answer that question — and can spit out a charming version of your favorite snapshot as if it were painted by the Spaniard himself in not much longer than it takes to choose a filter on Instagram. If the beta version is any indication, this thing is going to be huge.

And that's because Picasso is only the starting point. Take the same snapshot and pair it with "The Kiss," by Gustav Klimt. Pikazo can do that, too. You can even pair your dog's photo with a photo of a tree, or a burning fireplace, or bacon. Any two images that go into the app can come out as a fascinating mash-up. Some of them even look like art.

click to enlarge The author's dog in a snapshot (left), when mixed with Kilmt's "The Kiss" (center) and when mixed with a photo of an autumn tree (right).
The author's dog in a snapshot (left), when mixed with Kilmt's "The Kiss" (center) and when mixed with a photo of an autumn tree (right).

To answer what's certain to be your next question, no, you can't download Pikazo, not yet. But you don't have long to wait. Karl Stiefvater, the app's St. Louis-based inventor, says he hopes to make it available on iTunes by week's end. In the mean time, a group of 300 people — most with some connection to Stiefvater or his business partner, Noah Rosenberg — are having a blast exploring the app and all its capabilities. 

The core of the technology is based on developments that came out of Google in recent months — artificial neural networks that basically mimic the human eye. But it's Stiefvater's idea of how to apply them that may prove genius. Who doesn't want a new toy for transforming their endless series of iPhone photos into something much, well, artsier?

Even its inventor is a bit overwhelmed by its capabilities.

"We don't even totally understand how it works," Stiefvater admits. "A big part of what makes it fun is that we have to experiment with it, and we're learning as we go."

click to enlarge From left: Father and daughter in a snapshot, and then given two different Pikazo treatments.
From left: Father and daughter in a snapshot, and then given two different Pikazo treatments.

A St. Louis native who graduated from SLU High and Washington University before moving to California, Stiefvater knows what it's like to hit the big time. He worked on Myst and Second Life; he got gigs working for the big Hollywood studios, and the code he wrote for Matrix 2 blew up Neo's spaceship. When that guy got pushed into the pit in 300, well, "I built the pit," he says.

He adds, "My day job really has been to play with projects that I love. I was able to pick the fun jobs."

But this one, he admits, feels like something bigger — something with huge commercial prospects. Even that app that turns your profile pic into a cartoon, after all, starts at $5 an image. And unlike that one, Pikazo's options are basically limitless.

An RFT box gets the Gaugin treatment.
An RFT box gets the Gaugin treatment.

Already, even with that tightly controlled group of users, word is getting out. You can see the excitement build if you watch the #Pikazo hashtag on Twitter and Instagram. And while Stiefvater is not seeking venture capital ("I was in Silicon Valley; I have friends who are well-off"), he admits, "It's interesting to see them calling."

"I normally get one phone call a week," he says. "Today I got 20."

Stiefvater moved back to St. Louis in 2011, and since January, he's been based at Nebula, on Cherokee. But while the coworking space is home to some tech startups, it isn't a tech space by any means (Alderwoman Cara Spencer has her offices there; so does Kakao Chocolate). He likes being surrounded by creativity, not just programmers.

"One of the things I really like about St. Louis is the City Museum," he says. "That wouldn't be possible in many other cities. In other places, the warehouses are in use — so someone couldn't just co-opt one and turn it into a wonderland. Here, I'm able to build this fantasy world I wouldn't have been able to build in the Bay Area." And a pretty extraordinary app, too.

Turn the page for examples of Pikazo beta testing at work.

About The Author

Sarah Fenske

Sarah Fenske is the executive editor of Euclid Media Group, overseeing publications in eight cities. She is the former host of St. Louis on the Air and was previously editor-in-chief of the RFT and the LA Weekly. She lives in St. Louis.
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