When Phil Libin and his colleagues at startup studio All Turtles switched their in-person meetings to video as the coronavirus pandemic set in, something felt off. It wasn’t an issue of productivity or efficiency; what was missing was fun. “Everything was just kind of boring, tedious,” Libin says over video chat from his apartment in San Francisco. “Just living on video is hard.”
In an attempt to liven things up, he pinned a green camping towel behind him to use as a makeshift green screen, projecting images on to it during virtual meetings. The idea soon gained steam and the Mmhmm app was born.
The driving premise behind Mmhmm, which lets you jazz up video calls on platforms such as Zoom or Google Meet with virtual backgrounds, slides and animations, is a belief that, in many jobs, being successful means being able to entertain people – hard to do when you’re “a postage-stamp-size head in a box,” as Libin puts it. For inspiration, he turned to people who have actually cracked how to be engaging on video: TV presenters. The basic idea of Mmhmm is modelled on the likes of Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update, a parodic news sketch that sees an anchor present to camera in front of changing slides.
When you use Mmhmm, you can select a virtual “room” as your background (Libin opts for a tasteful bookcase) and choose to show slides featuring text, images and video, which appear either full-screen or in a box behind or beside you so that you don’t have to choose to screen-share at the expense of others being able to see your face. This means you can speak while showing sides, like a weather presenter. Additional features include a pointer tool, filters and emoji reactions; Libin demonstrates “Big Hand” mode, which uses gesture recognition to display a cartoon giant foam hand when he does a thumbs up (he admits that the etiquette for this new visual vocabulary may need some thought).
As well as zhuzhing up a live meeting, you can record yourself giving a presentation with Mmhmm and then send a link for others to watch at their leisure. When they do, they can choose to watch it like a video or flick through it like a slide deck.
Mmhmm is not intended as a direct competitor to existing video conferencing tech. You still need to run the call through a compatible platform such as Zoom; Mmhmm acts as the camera input. This means that one person can choose to use Mmhmm without others on the call needing to download anything. Platforms like Zoom allow and encourage third-party apps, although Libin acknowledges that video platforms may decide to build similar functionality themselves in the future. “Every time there’s such a big technological change, this happens – you don’t really know who’s going to wind up being a great partner and who’s going to wind up being your competitor,” he says. “Often, it’s both.”
Libin previously co-founded four companies including note-taking app Evernote, which he left in 2016, and All Turtles, which Mmhmm was spun out of (he is CEO of both). Mmhmm raised $31 million (£22 million) in series A funding in October and acquired Memix, which makes digital filters and other visual effects, in the same month. Libin says that the company philosophy is to only make money through direct revenue rather than through advertising or selling data: there is currently a premium option, which has more features and costs $9.99 a month, with plans for enterprise versions to offer businesses a custom “professional video presence”.
Post-Covid, Libin believes the demand for video will remain, with most jobs (and other activities) switching to a hybrid model. “Almost every experience in life is going to be a combination of video and in-person, and live and pre-recorded,” he says. But just like mobile apps aren’t simply shrunk-down versions of PC software, video meetings will find their own format. For Libin, the point is not to play catch-up, but to jump ahead, and make full use of the extra opportunities video allows for. Maybe one day it’ll seem strange not to have a giant smiley emoji appear when you make a heart gesture with your hands. “The way that we’re going to be doing video meetings a year from now is not going to be like trying to recreate the old reality, which no one really liked very much to begin with.”
Vicki Turk is WIRED’s features editor. She tweets from @VickiTurk
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