As a beauty writer, I had hoped never to have to write the words "blockchain" and "skin care" in the same sentence. But as more and more stories come out about cryptocurrency millionaires and their yachts, the crypto economy is getting harder to ignore. Enter Opu Labs, a skin-care start-up that wants to analyze your skin and pay you in Bitcoin for the privilege.
Opu's mission reads like a platform of stitched-together buzzwords. In a press release, the company describes itself as "a mobile application that bridges skin care, artificial intelligence and blockchain technology into one ecosystem." I've always wanted to get rich by way of blabbing about skin care, at which point I could afford all the La Mer and facials I've ever wanted and would never have to talk about skin care again. Naturally, I created an Opu account.
In practice, Opu plans to use facial recognition technology to connect beauty consumers with dermatologists and, more notably, with beauty brands. Users will upload a photo of themselves to be analyzed by Opu's AI for concerns like wrinkles and hyperpigmentation. In exchange for actions like uploading your selfie or connecting your Instagram profile, users are rewarded with Opucoin. The brand then wants you to use your Opucoin to buy… more advice.
Founder and CEO Marc Bookman first conceived of Opu in 2014, when he was working in search analysis and mobile advertising. But it's no surprise that the company pushed this year, when facial recognition and blockchain are becoming less confusing tech jargon and more regular words in plenty of people's vocabularies. Facial recognition technology may already be quite familiar to mobile-optimized beauty lovers (read: the youths). The industry is piling up with smart mirrors and virtual-try-on tech from apps like Sephora Visual Artist and Perfect365, and even Walgreens launched an online skin-care advisor this year.
The cryptocurrency market is expected to hit $1 trillion this year, and beauty companies are angling for a piece of the action. Hair-care brand R+Co recently announced that it will even begin accepting payments for dry shampoo in bitcoin. Out of this jumble of economics explainers and advanced AI algorithms comes Opu. The company may have be founded a few years back, but a spokesperson told me that things have been "progressing heavily" over the past few months. In fact, in the time between my conversation with the spokesperson and another with Bookman, Opu claims that its user base almost doubled — from 60,000 users to 103,000. The site has seen visitors from 189 countries, says Bookman. (For perspective, there are 193 countries in the UN.)
The company has recruited dermatologists, like New York-based professor Dr. Anna Karp, to help train its algorithm to recognize skin concerns like wrinkles and redness. Dr. Karp spends "a few hours" a week helping Opu's designers perfect the technology. There are moments in 2018 when it feels like we'll all soon be replaced by self-driving cars and robot bartenders. But judging by the results of my own facial scan, dermatologists will remain human for at least a few years longer. My own "analysis summary" informed me that my skin was in the 95th percentile for acne, meaning only 5 percent of people have worse skin than I do, to which I say thank you, and you've never been more wrong. I also supposedly had 0 percent hyperpigmentation (ha!) and 55 percent wrinkles (deeply offensive). I've always assumed that I'll be worrying about acne until I enter the retirement home, at which point I'll start to think about wrinkles. And much as I wish this report were accurate, the reality of my skin concerns is unfortunately harsher than my analysis would imply.
As Bookman will tell you, the technology is still a work in progress, and it's fair to assume that eventually the algorithm will sharpen and become a bit more accurate. But Opu is also working on additional tech offerings, like the ability to track a product's efficacy through as you update facial scans over time. Soon, you'll also be able to set skin goals like "I want reduced acne in 30 days." Finally, the company will roll out the functionality that allows doctor-to-user communication. "We want to bridge the doctors to the consumer," says Bookman. He sees Opu as a resource for people who want to talk skin outside the doctor's office or don't have access to dermatologists in their home countries, not as a replacement for your regular dermatologist visit.
By his own admission, Bookman knows "nothing about skin care," but in his product testing analysis work, he says he's noticed a widening gap between the price consumers are willing to pay for beauty products and the minimal knowledge they have about skin health. "The women don't trust the ads, the bloggers are all paid off, and there' misinformation out there," he says. So he did what any self-respecting start-up founder would do: He came up with a solution to the problem, then started on a plan to monetize it. First, the platform would have to offer a value-add to users in the form of advice and information from certified dermatologists. Then, Opu plans to take that bank of facial scans and data and sell it to the beauty brands that want to analyze your exact skin tone before they commit to a 40-shade foundation range.
To put it plainly, Opu will sell your data to third-party companies who want a deeper understanding of the beauty consumer. (The "data," please remember, is your face.) Opu plans to offer "standard data" as well as "the ability to do custom research programs" for brands, Bookman says. He notes that all users will be able to opt out of data collection, even going so far as to shield their facial scans from the certified dermatologists on the platform if they prefer. Still, "any consumer who opts in to the rewards program will make their data available," says Bookman. So if you want that sweet, sweet coin, you'll be paying for it with your face.
An Opu representative confirms that "your face is private and secure within the ecosystem [of Opu] itself." I was worried that my own data privacy concerns were too crotchety, and then I spoke to Dr. Ann Cavoukian, expert-in-residence at Ryerson University's Privacy by Design Centre. The first words she said to me were "this makes me really nervous."
"A facial image is such a sensitive biometric," explains Dr. Cavoukian. Like a fingerprint, it identifies that individual, and once it's retained in a database somewhere, your facial image can be all over the place." She runs through a quick list of worst-case scenarios: Someone can impersonate you and steal your identity, but instead of just using it to buy more skin-care products or unlock your iPhone, they could use it, for example, to cross an international border. "Once someone assumes your biometric, try getting it back," says Dr. Cavoukian. "You want to keep your face on a short leash. That data is worth a lot to beauty companies. You might be getting the raw end of the deal."
Denise DeRosa, founder of Cyber Sensible, is more compromising in her warnings. As long as Opu itself and any third-party company is secure, she's not entirely against using the platform. "Since we are accustomed to sharing so much of ourselves online, [I think] that this would not be a concern for many," she says. "Some prefer to get a lot of opinions and advice — whether from strangers or friends, who have experience tackling the same issues as you. If skin care is not a particularly sensitive issue for you, then I suppose it is okay to give the site a try."
And if Opu is taking a lot of data, at least you can't say the platform didn't warn you. "Our mission is to improve how the global skin-care industry exchanges data, information and rewards in a way that benefits patients, dermatologists, treatment centers, brand specialists and product manufacturers," the company's own site reads. Note that the word "data" appears long before the words "benefits patients."
But for users who want skin-care analyses without spilling their exact skin tone or number of blemishes to the researchers, Bookman sees you: "We have consumers who are really concerned about 'I'm going to put a photo up of me in the morning with no makeup on a new platform, is it going to be safe?' We have another type which is more 'Look at my before-and-after photos, everybody!' And a third type who wants to be very social, to share with their friends and to put photos on their social media." Ultimately, it's up to consumers to decide if good skin is worth the privacy of their face.