Leonardo DiCaprio Helped Make This Belarusian App Go Viral

  • MSQRD app blends facial features with those of a celebrity
  • Belarus startup rushed to build app as SnapChat bought rival

While Leonardo DiCaprio was polishing his acceptance speech last week, a trio of programmers from the former Soviet Union were busy capitalizing on his fame in the run-up to the 88th Academy Awards.

Minsk-based Masquerade Technologies Inc.’s app lets users superimpose celebrity faces over their own in selfie videos. The result is a blend of facial features, not quite DiCaprio and not quite you, but curiously recognizable as both. The app reached the top 5 by popularity in the U.S. iTunes App Store last week ahead of the Oscars, where the 41-year-old Hollywood star won the best actor prize for his performance as a vengeance-seeking fur trader in “The Revenant’’.

Leonardo DiCaprio speaks at the 88th Academy Awards.

Photographer: Mark Ralston/AFP via Getty Images

Sergey Gonchar, Eugene Zatepyakin and Eugene Nevgen first developed the software called MSQRD during a 48-hour so-called hackathon in Minsk in November. At that point the app only added a dynamic mustache. By New Year, the Belarusians had developed a full-scale service letting users try on dozens of faces, ranging from Snoop Dogg to Joseph Stalin (with a mustache).

Nevgen and his partners rushed to complete their app after Snapchat Inc. acquired a similar face-tracking software called Looksery for a reported $150 million last year, the 23-year-old said by phone from San Francisco. Masquerade has raised $1 million and plans to hire more programmers to its current staff of 12. The company has been approached by Silicon Valley tech firms, Nevgen said, declining to elaborate further.

MSQRD is still the most popular iPhone app in more than 20 other markets, including Russia, Germany and South Korea, according to research firm App Annie.

Aided by the features of former Soviet strongman Stalin, the app gained popularity in Russia -- where it’s already installed on almost every third iPhone -- and then spread west to the rest of Europe, according to Nevgen. At its peak during Oscar week, MSQRD climbed to third place overall in U.S. iTunes App Store downloads, according to App Annie, and reached the top spot in photo and video apps after Jimmy Kimmel demonstrated the program on his show. The app is approaching 12 million downloads globally, according to Masquerade.

"Online communication is migrating to video, which lacks emojis and stickers," Nevgen said. "We were thinking about how to add emotions to videos, and decided that face-tracking effects could be an option."

DiCaprio, supervillain the Joker, Harry Potter and the Monkey -- the symbol of 2016 according to the Chinese zodiac -- are among the most popular masks. The Monkey has helped drum up interest in Asia for the app, Nevgen said. Users then post videos on social networks such as Instagram. Masquerade has produced a mask editor so that developers in different countries can make masks suited to local tastes.

"MSQRD applies masks in a very natural way, smoothly following the movement of your head and facial gestures," said Igor Yermakov, head of instant messaging at Russian social-networks operator Mail.ru Group Ltd. "Their masks have become a viral success because they appeal to users of various cultures with images such as DiCaprio, Obama or Joseph Stalin."

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