Anomo is a new Seattle mobile startup that’s looking to solve an age-old dilemma: How do you find that special someone?

The company, which recently landed a $255,000 seed round from founder Lee Zehrer; Pirq CEO James Sun and Microsoft vice president Amit Mital, has a unique approach to matchmaking.

It forces everyone to first interact via an anonymous self-created avatar, known in this case as an Anomo. This allows people to connect with one another through more substantive means, learning about common interests and even playing interactive games together.

As the company notes in its tagline, Anomo is a place where “first impressions are based on more than a photo.”

Sounds ambitious, huh? And, of course, transforming the way people have picked a mate for decades (largely by checking out how they look) is no easy task.

But the times, they are a changing. And founder Benjamin Liu, a former Microsoftie who previously founded InterActive Sports Media and software consulting shop Vinasource, thinks he can pull off this ambitious feat.

Working on Anomo for the past year, Liu tells GeekWire that the mobile app could “fundamentally change the way people interact and socialize” by encouraging folks to get to know one other based on their interest as opposed to what they look like.

That, of course, raises all sorts of questions about what sparks that first love interest.

But, before we delve into that, here’s more on how Anomo works:

Everyone starts by creating an anonymous avatar, which they control. Individuals can “check in” to various physical locations, say the local gym or coffee shop, and see if other Anomos are present. Over time, as you connect with people in the network, users can reveal more of themselves, perhaps hobbies or a profession. Eventually, once a trustworthy connection is made, a user can reveal their actual photo.

The first most obvious application of Anomo certainly revolves around dating. But Liu notes that the application goes much further, potentially helping business professionals connect at conferences or students to find study partners. He uses this example to illustrate his point:

Attendees at a conference check in to the hotel the conference is held at, look at the tags of the avatars around them, and make new business connections.  They chat with people with tags that interest them, and set up meetings if they find a connection.  For example, at a “Startup Conference,” startups can find people tagged as angel investors and VCs, while investors can look at the tags of entrepreneurs and their ideas.  Each side can hold comfortable and “anonymous” chats, and if they’re interested, choose to reveal more about themselves and do a “live” in person meeting if they find a good fit.

A number of startups are attacking this social discovery market, many in the online dating arena. But Liu said, in most cases, they require people to use real pictures and names, a roadblock that prevents many from disclosing that level of detail early on in the courtship process.

“In this day and age, with your name and a picture, I can find out your home address in two minutes,” says Liu. “Users are rightfully wary of such apps.” He also notes that many competing apps are proximity based, pointing out people who are within one or five miles of you. But Anomo is location based, meaning that users can interact with one another at an exact location.

“We’re tapping into the dynamic social network that consists of a user and all the people directly around him at any given time,” says Liu. “People that are sharing the exact same experience —  a Seahawks game, a lecture, a dining experience, a coffee shop. What I share in such an environment is so much more relevant and useful, than a wall post I make on Facebook in which 99 percent of my friends don’t really care that I’m looking for a study partner for Professor Oppenheimer’s Macroeconomics class. My dynamic social network does care. This is what excites me the most about Anomo.”

Liu is so confident in the Anomo approach that they’ve filed for a patent on the anonymous avatar revealing process. That process allows users to reveal bits and pieces of information, so another user can only see what is revealed.

Of course, there’s a big roadblock in front of any application that tries to connect people in real time. You need a critical mass of folks participating in any given geographic area in order for it to be worthwhile.

I asked Liu about this so-called “chicken and egg problem,” and he said they’ve been trying to address that by automatically finding people on Anomo who may share an interest and automatically checking people into neighborhoods.

“This allows the scenario in which I’m looking for someone to play basketball with down at the local park – I can make a post on the neighborhood page, and see if there are others interested,” says Liu.

In addition, the company is focusing all of its initial marketing efforts on students at The University of Washington.

“This affords us massive density, with a large user base in a small area,” says Liu. “We’ll be able to prove out the social and viral concepts of the app, learn from user feedback, and then expand our reach, one area or college campus at a time.”

Not mentioned by Liu is the fact that college kids also may not be weirded out by the idea of interacting with one another via avatars.

Here’s a closer look at how Anomo works.

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  • Thomas R.

    Manti Te’o would love this!

    Sorry I had to.

  • JKim

    I know the inside guys who worked on this….and they are onto something potentially pretty novel and big.

  • Thaddeus David

    I anticipate some lonely engineers being disappointed when they discover the cute avatar they have been chatting with is actually AI bot.

  • Trollolololol

    Check out Reddit , read up on catfishing, then check your spam folder. If this site can deal with an internet that likes to troll people and the thousands of girls who spam email me everyday wanting me to “check out their cams” or “meet up”, then maybe, just maybe they’ll have something. Until then Troll away.

  • James Sun

    We’ve really thought through the process….especially having an expert in online dating space as an investor. We require everyone who signs up to use Facebook so that we can verify that they are a female/male and also that they are a real person.

    • Trollolololol

      Yes because it is so hard to create a Facebook Profile and everyone on Facebook is real…Sometimes I wonder if people really know the products they supposedly “thought through.”

      • James Sun

        FB profile is a good start…especially when you verify based on x number of friends to validate that they are real. You’ll never be 100% perfect, but good luck building any product that way.

        • Trollolololol

          Internet marketing 101, guy in India or China creates hundreds of fake profiles, they friend each other, then they sell likes to companies. Just Google “Buy Facebook Likes”

          How much do you want to bet that very few people are going to use this? I dare you to release the actual number of users in month.

          You just don’t understand college students, this app comes off as creepy not cool. And what are we in elementary school? You really think we need Pokemon characters wearing hipster clothing? Might as well just go play World of Warcraft or some other MMO, at least you can play a game too. Here’s some research on what college students actually look for when dating:

          And maybe I’m shallow but I actually do care what a person looks like, that’s why I like to see photos not cutesy cartoon characters. I bet you think people picked up the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition for the articles too. Uh-huh.

          You would be better off having no verification and letting people just do what they want. LRN2PLAYNOOB.

          • James Sun

            If you tried using the app, you will clearly see that people can choose to reveal real info (including pics) after the 1st impression or 2nd impression. So, it allows users to request and reveal real info after a digital interaction goes well. But obviously, you haven’t tried to understand the app before making your conclusions. Don’t judge a book by it’s covers :) Thanks for confirming and validating why we have this app. It’s because you are behind a cryptic “Trollolololol” ID that you can have a frank discussion like this. There’s truly something about anonymity.

  • college

    This sounds awesome! I am excited to see where this App goes.

  • Jon

    Omg,,,, are you kidding me?

  • thefiddler

    Avatar mediated social interaction and social “discovery” is very popular in Asia. QQSpeed in China being a prime example. However I don’t believe the western mass market is ready, or quite frankly, ever will be ready for this.

    There are those people who are afraid of divulging personally identifiable information on social networks. Subtract from that set, those people who are concerned with the geeky stigma of using an avatar proxy for social interaction/discovery and you have the market for this application.

    Unfortunately I think that boils down to a very stereotypical market of teenage antisocial “geeks”.

  • nwdivisionchamps

    awesome app… this has already helped me meet a couple of friends. it’s a neat way of discovering some initial connections and mutual hobbies/interests you have with people and then creating conversations from there. who can hate on trying to meet people based on interactions instead of immediate biases/judgments based on how someone looks?

  • Jason Gerard Clauss

    This is going to flop like a lead balloon. A site that doesn’t show real photos is going to become a mecca for the fatties. The rest of us know this.

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