Tina Tang didn’t set out to conquer intelligent home design.
But seven months, one grad school diploma and one NC IDEA SEED grant later, the Bristles CEO is on the verge of doing just that.
Before she co-founded Durham-based Bristles, her first startup, Tang was a graduate student in machine learning. But long before that, she was a visual artist. At grad school, she had more free time than she ever had in her years of working in IT in the Triangle, so she began to use machine learning to do what artists do best: creating.
“I would develop these AI models and train them towards creative tasks,” Tang said. “For example, the Smithsonian recently released National Portrait Gallery photos that are historical, black-and-white portraits. I thought it would be really fun to train a model to add color, to add life, into these photos—and so I did that. And I enjoyed that so much that I started thinking; is there a career option here?”
Bristles, originally created as a platform for painting on the go, is like the ultimate Photoshop-esque solution for your home, allowing users to (virtually) place eclectic furniture pieces in their space simply by taking pictures of what they want to add.
Conventional photo editing apps put a single filter on an entire photo, which lacks the “continuous creative design” that one would experience when, say, painting a picture. With Bristles, Tang hoped to build a better solution for mobile art, allowing users to play around with photos and details just like they could do with desktop editing software.
“With desktop photo editing software like Photoshop, you can build surreal worlds and make these really amazing things,” Tang said. “But a similar experience didn’t really exist on the phone, and it was very difficult to use Photoshop. Initially, we wanted to tackle this problem of building something on your phone that was really easy to use, but enabled you to create anything that you could dream of.”
Tang shifted her vision to make Bristles a home decor facilitator after hearing feedback from very early testers that while they liked the idea of a mobile art app, they wouldn’t use it much. She found a real pain point, though, when she decided to move the idea of technology-enabled design into people’s living rooms.
“A lot of people have trouble executing these projects, because they have all these creative ideas that are kind of floating in their heads,” Tang said. “They have some picture documentation of their ideas, things that inspire them, but they don’t have a way to really creatively plan these projects. That’s the tool we’re building.”
The software allows for people to place any furniture object photo in their spaces, democratizing and expanding upon tools that large retailers like Wayfair keep exclusive to their platform. Users can even change the color of furniture, mimicking a paint job one might perform on, say, a vintage table.
True to the Durham startup spirit, Tang looks to partner with local furniture shops and thrift stores—where return policies are rare, so “buyer’s remorse” has a much more expensive implication—to give readers a sneak peek at how pieces may look in their home.
The $10,000 MICRO grant from NC IDEA, Tang said, will be used to get Bristles into the hands of actual users in a beta test that she hopes to launch later this year. Interested users, she said, can subscribe to Bristles’ update email list on their website.