The next generation of videoconferencing is now in beta
Originally published by Casey Newton @CaseyNewton
The future of video chat will look more like Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update than it will Zoom. That’s the bet being made by Phil Libin, who led Evernote as CEO during its glory days and has returned to the intersection of consumer and enterprise software with a virtual camera that could reshape video communication. The product has a name that is ridiculous even by the standards of Silicon Valley — it’s called Mmhmm — and the company said today that it had raised $4.5 million led by Sequoia Capital.
Mmhmm — “it’s important to have a name you can say while eating,” Libin jokes — is a virtual camera that can be used with Zoom, Google Meet, YouTube, and other video streaming services. Turn it on, and the app transforms your room into a virtual stage. Like other videoconferencing tools, Mmhmm offers a variety of still and animated virtual backgrounds to enliven your conversations.
But that’s just the start: the real power of Mmhmm comes in the way it lets you easily manipulate slides, backgrounds, and your own image — either for fun or for business reasons. With a simple gesture on a trackpad, you can move your face around the screen, shrink or enlarge your image, or disappear completely. (You can also turn a grainy, opaque blue in a touch modeled after Jedi holograms.) You can post slides that appear over your shoulder and advance them with a tap. And you can team up with another Mmhmm user to create a collaborative presentation, with each of you able to manipulate images on the screen and advance the show.
The app also allows you to create interactive presentations. A recorded Mmhmm video can be played back as a movie, but the viewer can also click on slides to advance the presentation, toggle the presenter and their audio on and off, or pause the presentation to zoom in on a notable slide.
The result is a product that could be equally of interest to YouTubers, salespeople, and friends who are goofing off during Zoom happy hours. Mmhmm is available today as an invite-only beta for macOS Catalina, with mobile and Windows versions expected in the coming months.
The app is the product of AllTurtles, a digital studio that Libin founded in 2017 after leaving Evernote and doing a stint as a venture capitalist. The idea for it originated as the COVID-19 pandemic forced Libin and his teammates into full-time remote work, where their videoconferencing options left them feeling uninspired.
Libin is among many in Silicon Valley who believe that remote work will prove popular even after the pandemic subsides and that videoconferencing will be the connective tissue between people and companies. “Everyone has to have a video presence now,” Libin says. “We all have to do this now some of the time, forever.”
That has created an opening for what Libin calls “personal video presence” — a software-enhanced version of yourself that appears whenever you’re on (web) camera. The idea is to bring some style to your video chats that Zoom and its many clones have so far failed to deliver.
The alpha version of Mmhmm, which I’ve tested over the past couple of weeks, is clearly early in that vision. But it’s also promising. The Verge colleagues to whom I have shown Libin’s demo all asked me when they would be able to start using it.
Some prominent backers have also taken notice. Libin has attracted a host of big names in consumer software to Mmhmm as angel investors, including Instagram co-founders Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger, Twitter co-founder Biz Stone, and Eventbrite co-founders Julia and Kevin Hartz.
As with Evernote, Libin says that Mmhmm will likely adopt a “freemium” business model, offering some features for free and others on a paid tier. He imagines guitar teachers using Mmhmm to play while showing the song’s tablature in a slide; doctors practicing telemedicine with X-rays appearing above their shoulders, and financial planners walking clients through their taxes with the relevant numbers floating nearby.
FOR PEOPLE WHO WANT TO STREAM POWERPOINT INSTEAD OF FORTNITE
It’s intended to be the go-to app for “people who want to stream PowerPoint instead of Fortnite,” he says. “Depressingly, there are very many of us.”
As for the name, Libin says he finds the oddness of it compelling. “A thing I like about Mmhmm is that it’s hard to say,” he says. “You can inflect it in so many different ways … You have to perform it.”
Performance is the heart of Mmhmm, and it explains why, in addition to more mundane matters like building a Windows app, the company is also working on a feature that will let presenters disappear from the screen by throwing a virtual smoke bomb.
From the moment Zoom announced it had surged from 10 million daily meeting participants in December to more than 300 million participants today, something like Mmhmm was probably inevitable. It seems likely to inspire a wave of clones, as other streaming solutions come to the same conclusion Mmhmm did — that if this is the way life is going to be, the time we spend in videoconferencing software ought to look and feel a lot more fun.