STEPHANIE FINDLAY/TORONTO STAR
Stephanie Findlay STAFF REPORTER
As a kid, Parham Arabi was a geek who loved math contests and Star Trek. Now, he’s a beauty maven.
Arabi, a University of Toronto associate professor, owns ModiFace, a $30 million virtual makeover business where users try out cosmetics, wedding gowns and plastic surgery free online.
Companies like Botox and Hearst Magazines have rushed to add ModiFace to their digital arsenal, finding it an easy way to keep flighty online patrons engaged with their products. Its newest app, for Stila cosmetics, has just been released.
Beauty is perhaps an unintuitive market for an engineer to pursue, but as Arabi discovered it’s not such a bad fit.
A 35-year-old baby-faced man with a goatee who describes himself as “less appearance conscious than my friends and family would like,” Arabi was born the first of two children in Tehran to two engineers. The family’s early years were spent “thinking about how to go to a place where there were no wars,” he says.
Five years later, in pursuit of peace, the family moved to Tokyo. They would relocate to Zurich and Atlanta before settling in Thornhill when Arabi was 11.
Growing up, he played with Lego, competed in math contests and religiously watched Star Trek and television cartoons like GI Joe and Transformers. He was fascinated by things that “existed on TV, but didn’t in real life.”
As a teenager, he’d program simple games like Space Invaders on his IBM 286, a computer with a green monitor and 5½-inch floppy drive.
Arabi completed his undergrad in engineering at U of T before doing his masters on microphones. (Later, his focus would be automatic face analysis).
In 1999, he was accepted by Stanford University for his PhD. It was a dynamic time in California — Google founder Sergey Brin was his office mate.
He returned to U of T a professor, and in 2005, the year he won tenure and was anointed one of MIT’s “top 35 under 35,” his work caught the interest of plastic surgeons who wanted a way to instantly show clients their services.
Arabi was determined to make the ideal visualization tool: one that could take a 2D image and show a 3D effect, like a face lift or lip filler, in real-time. He researched for an intense eight months, meeting over 100 surgeons.
Two years later, Botox and facial fillers Juvederm and Restylane were using ModiFace. The next year, Oxygen, a lifestyle channel, and Hearst signed on.
A ModiFace app generally works like this: users upload a photo and alter it by applying makeup or administering plastic surgery.
Sounds simple, but there are two technical challenges. The first is facial recognition. An app must be able detect an eye, for example, so makeup isn’t accidentally applied on an eyeball.
Arabi and his engineers coded a “neural network,” a computer model that works like a simplified human brain, and trained it like a baby to identify facial features.
The second challenge is coding graphics that replicate the colour and texture of makeup — glossy, sparkly, matte or otherwise — onscreen. The codes behind facial recognition and colour graphics are the bulk of ModiFace’s patents.
Yet what sets Arabi apart is not just his codes but his faith in young engineers, the backbone of his company.
“I can put my own input into the project,” says Harry Zhao, ModiFace’s 21-year-old director of mobile. “At other places there’s no room for creativity.”
The pay is average, he says, but he values his young colleagues and open work space. (All 11 engineers at ModiFace are, like Zhao, former or current U of T students under 25.)
“You can talk better than if you were in cubicles where you’re stuck in your own room depressed,” Zhao says.
However, Arabi knows the limitations of those in his field. “I’ve realized it’s impossible for engineers to understand makeup and cosmetics,” he says, so every app is assigned an “expert” in the field, be it a makeup artist or fashion stylist.
The formula seems to be working. The five-year-old company has 50 clients, 27 employees, a new office in New York and some 10 apps in the pipeline. On any given day, 500,000 new photos are uploaded to ModiFace.
Still, Arabi’s ultimate goal, to create an app like a mirror, has yet to be realized. “It’s really hard to do, to process every frame on the fly” says Arabi. “Computers need to be 10 times more powerful.”
But he’s optimistic. “If you look at Moore’s law” — computer power doubles annually — “we’ll probably get there in two to three years.”