HONG KONG, China — ObEN, an artificial intelligence company that creates virtual identities for consumers and celebrities, has raised $10 million from K11, a museum-retail concept founded by entrepreneur Adrian Cheng, whose family controls the Hong Kong conglomerate New World Development and jewellery group Chow Tai Fook.
The funding from K11 will be used to drive the growth of ObEN’s AI technology, which can simulate a person’s voice, face and personality, and can do things on their behalf. The start-up, founded in 2014 and based in Pasadena, California, has raised more than $23.7 million to date.
“With this strategic investment from K11, we are able to reach millions of new customers and create experiences that will shape the future of retail,” said Nikhil Jain, co-founder and chief executive of ObEN, in a statement.
Using ObEN’s Personal Artificial Intelligence (PAI) concierge, consumers can receive real-time information and personalised shopping advice. “K11 is committed to localising the PAI platform and bringing an immersive AI experience for visitors at all K11 projects,” said Cheng.
The technology will first be available in early 2018 at Shanghai’s K11 art mall, where visitors will be able to use tablets provided by the retailer, walk up to a piece of art or design, and engage with an avatar in the form of a celebrity, curator or even Cheng himself. “In the future, this can be applied to in-mall LCD screens as well as users’ smartphones to provide shopping tips and retail guides,” explained a spokesperson.
The announcement follows a number of retail investments from Cheng, heir of the billionaire Yu-Tung Cheng. In October 2017, Cheng formed C Ventures, a new fund that targets Millennial and Gen-Z focused brands in China and the US, including media channel Dazed, social media platform Galore, fitness and beauty hubs Bandier and Beautycon, and Not Just a Label, a community and e-commerce site promoting emerging fashion designers. In December, C Ventures and K11 led luxury e-commerce site Moda Operandi’s $165 million investment round.
Eventually, ObEN's AI-powered tools could be used by these businesses. In June 2017, ObEN teamed up with S.M. Entertainment (a company that manages prominent K-pop artists like BoA, Super Junior, Girls' Generation and EXO) to launch a joint venture called AI Stars, which lets celebrities create unique experiences for consumers and retail outlets. One day, consumers will be able to ask a virtual avatar based on their favourite celebrities for fashion advice, a more interactive experience than engaging with a simple chatbot that doesn’t yet have the level of personalisation consumers expect.