DETROIT — A fast-growing Detroit startup aims to remove one of the Internet’s most irritating moments: the Captcha.

You’ve seen them — those made-up words rendered in psychedelic, wavy fonts, intended to make sure you’re not a computer when you’re online buying those concert tickets or posting that comment on a news story.

All too often, the words are illegible and you type the wrong thing, and before you know it, you’re in the back row at that concert.

How about playing a fun little 10-second game instead?

That was the brain child of Tyler Paxton, later joined by Benjamin Blackmer and Reid Tatoris, in what has become a captcha alternative company called Are You A Human.

The three met at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, from which Paxton and Tatoris graduated last year, and where Blackmer will graduate next month, all with MBAs.

“Tyler came up with the idea,” Tatoris said in an interview last week. “He was at work and said a friend was trying to buy Hannah Montana tickets for his daughter. It sold out in something like three minutes. They later saw an article in the Wall Street Journal about how a huge chunk of the tickets had been bought up by scalpers who found a way around captcha, and bought the tickets and were reselling them for five to 10 times face price. So the captcha didn’t work out well.”

So, Tatoris said, Paxton started thinking about what computers do well and what they don’t do well. Turns out, optical character resolution software has gotten so good that computers can now easily decipher those wavy letters — faster than a human, in fact.

Add that to the fact that everybody seems to hate captcha — “It’s just an awful user experience, everyone says they hate them,” Blackmer said — and a business was born.

So how about instead of that awful captcha, how about the verification you’re a human is a little game — say, a refrigerator in a box, and next to it are a turkey leg, a piece of pie, a car tire and a battery, and the print says, “Please put the food in the refrigerator.” You drag the turkey leg and the pie slice over to the fridge with your mouse and you’re done — verified human. Or there’s a pizza surrounded by a mushroom, a piece of pepperoni, a shoe and a hat. Put the toppings on the pizza and you’re done — verified human. It takes just a few seconds — shorter than captcha.

“We don’t look at whether you follow the steps correctly, we look at how you act — do you act in a human-like manner,” Blackmer said. “We measure 35 metrics, how long the game takes you, how you start it, how you play it, mouse movements. We have humans playing our games and testers that try to break them to design the algorithm that classifies you.”

The company participated in the Michigan Business Challenge last year, a UM student startup competition.

“We didn’t make it out of the second round, but it was very helpful for us to learn what we weren’t explaining well, and where we hadn’t fleshed out the idea,” Blackmer said.

Things turned around quickly. Are You A Human took second place in the Rice University business plan competition later last year, the nation’s largest collegiate business plan competition, which earned the company a half-page profile in Fortune magazine. And it won the student section of last year’s Accelerate Michigan business plan competition.

Are You A Human also closed a Series A round of funding last June with Detroit Venture Partners, the venture fund backed by young local business leaders like Quicken Loans CEO Dan Gilbert and ePrize LLC founder Josh Linkner. And in October, they became the first tenant of Detroit Venture Partners’ showcase business incubator, the Madison Building in downtown Detroit.

“As we were talking to them about the money, they told us about this guilding and their ideas for this space for their portfolio companies,” Blackmer said. “Really, the tactical everyday benefit to being here is talking to everybody here and bouncing ideas off other companies, which we’ve done, frankly, a lot, and testing user experience.”

Tatoris said the company “definitely made a conscious decision to be in Detroit. Ben and I both grew up in Michigan, we both lived outside the state and traveled around and then came back, and being part of this new Detroit story is very appealing for us. There’s a brand new community that’s starting up to shift the direction of the city. I live downtown and everybody down here is really passionate about what they’re doing.”

So far, the company is serving up about 275,000 games a month on 18 Web sites — everything from sister company Fathead to a TV station in Iowa to a couple of blogs in the United Kingdom to companies in Canada and Japan. There are current inquiries from companies in Spain, Mexico and Russia.

Future games, Blackmer and Tatoris said, won’t involve words at all, so they can be used globally without worrying about translation — say, put the eyes, nose and mouth on a face.

And eventually, the company wants to brand its games for specific clients — the pizza game brought to you by Little Caesar’s, for example.

And those awful captchas are definitely helping sales.

“We’ve got a rogue’s gallery of terrible captchas,” Blackmer said. “People send us new ones all the time.”

The company now has four engineers working with the three cofounders, and is currently hiring — looking specifically for an experienced back-end Web developer.

But “we’re always looking for good talent,” Tatoris said. “Anyone who’s a good developer who’s smart and loves Detroit and loves the idea of working for a startup, I’d love to talk to them.”

And some day, they said, they’ll thank Miley Cyrus, whom they credit as their fourth founder.

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Comments (2)
  1. eric Simon says:

    Solve Media is the 800 pound gorilla in this space

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