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No Nametags: Hugh Dornbush of OMGICU

In our No Nametags interview series, Geekosystem chats with the creators, operators, and visionaries in today’s tech scene. This week, we grabbed a beer with Hugh Dornbush, the founder of OMGICU, a free iPhone app which describes itself as “just like Wikipedia, only with celebrity sightings.” The app grabs user-generated photos of celebrities from Twitter and Facebook and puts them into a slick interface, and encourages users to share their celeb spottings.

Previously, a prototype of the app existed as an SMS-based service under the same name, but despite gaining some traction — it scored a publicity coup when Dornbush launched a successful campaign under the OMGICU banner to convince Tracy Morgan to join Twitter — the service was ultimately shuttered when Dornbush decided that a full-fledged smartphone app would better be able to accomplish what he had in mind. The OMGICU app is expected to launch in April or May of this year.

Geekosystem: Celebrity photos and tech don’t seem like the most intuitive match. How did you get the idea for the original OMGICU?

Dornbush: Before I started OMGICU, I worked for a company called Rave Wireless, which did some very early work with geolocation. Back then, it was a lot harder to get usable geodata — phones were just starting to support geolocation, and you didn’t have APIs like Foursquare’s to plug into. The prototype version of OMGICU actually hacked together location by having people subscribe to neighborhoods they were interested in, and inferring roughly where they were based on that.

It’s not really a big part of Gawker today, but Gawker Stalker was definitely an influence — people had a visceral, natural response to seeing celebrities and knowing where they are. Since my background was in mobile, I conceived of it as an SMS-based service. Remember that back then [in 2009], a lot fewer people had smartphones, and apps had not yet caught on in a mainstream way. Originally, there were no photos and videos, just updates, which was probably a mistake.

Geekosystem: What makes the OMGICU app unique?

Dornbush: OMGICU is a mobile-first product. Like, the iPhone 4, for the first time ever, is a phone with a good camera. If it hasn’t already, your phone will soon replace your point-and-shoot camera. That enables a new kind of citizen journalism. Also, your phone knows where you are and can tailor what you see based on where you’re standing. Those are obvious but fundamental characteristics that allow mobile apps to be interesting in ways that print, the web, or television can’t be.

OMGICU can pull regular people’s celebrity sightings from Twitter and Facebook, and our algorithm is really good at detecting those, even for niche celebrities. Below every picture, the app shows a “who” (description from Wikipedia) and a “where” (tagged map from Foursquare). When people are using the app actively, they can report sightings and actually map stuff near them. There’s also something called Sneakyshot [currently available for paid download as a standalone app, but also available as part of the free OMGICU app] that lets people shoot up to four photos while they’re pretending to talk on the phone, since not everyone is comfortable walking up to a celebrity and taking a picture.

Geekosystem: How will the app make money? Are you launching with display ads, or are you just trying to build up a user base first?

Dornbush: ‪No, it doesn’t make sense to launch with display ads. There has to exist an audience to monetize first and the best way to accomplish that is to build a great product. ‬ When an audience is large and engaged, in broad strokes, we can monetize the content they are capturing and sharing through OMGICU and we can connect people with brands and other commercial opportunities in the real-world. And this should play to the unique strengths of mobile devices and not look so much like display advertising does today anyhow.‬

A lot of our content relates to which celebrities use which brands and go to which businesses, and it’s not a new notion that celebrity purchasing behavior influences consumer behavior in meaningful ways. I think we have a lot of runway there.‬

Geekosystem: So what’s next?

Dornbush: First, filters and personalized feeds are part of the near-term product plan. Celebrity magazines have to be focused on a lowest common denominator, but the Internet has made celebrity kind of niche. There are plenty of interesting people who won’t get much coverage from mainstream publications but who have real followings, and you might not even think of them until you see whose photos people are Tweeting and posting to Facebook.

Also: Moving beyond the iPhone to other platforms. Android’s growth is crazy but there are a lot of people with BlackBerries who are not defecting anytime soon, so both those apps need to happen.

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