Always-on video chat is here, and it’s either genius or insane. Or both

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If you thought your days were currently filled with non-stop Zoom-style video meetings, you haven’t seen anything yet. Well, at least not if a new startup founded by ex-Googlers and big data analytics company Palantir Technologies has its way.

Sidekick’s proposition is simple: What if, instead of remote workers having to schedule and make video calls with their teammates throughout the day, there was an always-on video connection that lasted all day, showing you your colleagues during work hours? And showing you to them. It’s, well, it’s actually like being in an office. Except you don’t have to share the same physical space.

Sidekick isn’t just another video calling app though. Like the recently announced 27-inch dedicated Zoom video display, this is a self-contained piece of hardware consisting of an Android tablet that sits on your desk while you work like a digital picture frame. The idea is that it turns on at the start of the day (you get a notification when the first person arrives) and then stays on until you leave.

Or, since you probably work from home, until you decide to throw in the towel and make the half-dozen steps to the kitchen to make dinner. By giving it its own dedicated device, the team behind Sidekick hopes to make video conferencing an even more common part of the everyday work environment. That’s the difference between Google Assistant or Siri as a feature on your phone and a voice assistant like Amazon Echo or Google Home. At least that’s the ambition.

A beautiful coincidence

“Our big bet is that the most valuable conversations we have in the office environment are synchronous, unplanned communications,” Arthur Wu, co-founder and COO of Sidekick, told Digital Trends. “[The really important ones are] just, you know, spontaneous conversations.”

Wu may be right. Video calls are fine for casual conversations, but there’s a formality involved — especially when you need to reserve a specific slot in a co-worker’s schedule. And forget about the dreaded Zoom conference calls where people either talk over each other or just go silent throughout the ordeal.

“Our big bet is that the most valuable conversations we have in the office environment are synchronous, unplanned communications,”

Slack can be less formal, but conversations are text-based and can be uneven and asynchronous. Texting “Hey Drew” is almost the same as saying hello in person, but if Drew is in a different time zone or prioritizing between responding to an open greeting from a colleague or planning his numbers for that important meeting later that day, he might not respond right away. In addition, there is the “slack bloat” of tagging dozens of colleagues.

The idea behind Sidekick is to enable some of those casual interactions that would otherwise only be possible in an office environment. If successful, it could open up new channels of communication between the teams. Even if it means adding a whole new level of intrusiveness to the work-from-home experience.

A problem for founders

“We all quit our jobs in March to actually work on a different startup idea,” said Andy Chen, CEO and co-founder of Sidekick. “My last day at work was March 20, two days later [New York] went into lockdown. It was a pretty scary time to give up a steady income and health insurance. A week later, when COVID got really bad, three-quarters of us fled New York to go back to our childhood homes in New Jersey, Virginia and California.”

When the four co-founders decided to team up, they never imagined that they would be working remotely from each other. Certainly not as suddenly as it happened.

Image used with permission of the copyright holder

“We quickly realized that it was going to be brutal to start a company remotely,” Chen continued. “We missed all the spontaneous conversations and friendship working in the same room. We found out the hard way that these interactions are critical to the founding team; that’s where the best ideas come from and where deep connections are made.”

The first version of Sidekick was a prototype they built to simulate being in the same room “to give this company a fighting chance.” They then discovered that their hacked collaborative solution was a more compelling business. They started talking to other founders and they all complained that they had the same problem.

“We quickly realized that our team was not an anomaly in wanting an always-on video device,” Chen said. They decided to make Sidekick a commercial product.

Panopticonization of the home office

“It’s not for everyone,” Wu said. Certainly, it’s very easy to imagine that Sidekick is of some kind Silicon Valley punch line perhaps topped by the scene where Sherry Turkle’s lament about how technology makes us “alone together” is borrowed as a product tagline. The Sidekick could be this year’s version of the “selfie stick” — although if it’s a fraction of that invention’s success, its co-founders will be very, very happy.

Wu described ideal users as “fast-paced, close-knit teams that feel like they need a way to feel together. … The biggest thing is just building some kind of shared social energy and atmosphere. I think people who have had relationships that were forced to remote work due to COVID [will be] capable of maintaining these relationships. But over time, it’s going to be very, very difficult to build new relationships or a new culture among teams that are formed in the age of remote work.”

Always-on video chat is here, and it’s either genius or insane. Or both 1Always-on video chat is here, and it’s either genius or insane. Or both 2Image used with permission of the copyright holder

There are also reasons to be afraid; not just the possible concern about turning your home office into a virtual panopticon. The Panopticon was a conceptual prison devised by the English philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Bentham in the late 18th century. Circular in design, with a large watchtower in the center, the theory behind the panopticon was that the prisoners would behave as if they were being watched at all times: the mere presence of the watchtower was effective in regulating their behavior.

A similar phenomenon exists in today’s open-plan offices. In theory, an open-plan office is a far more comfortable environment than a cubicle farm. But the layout of these offices forces employees to monitor their own behavior, knowing that colleagues and managers may be watching them. It’s not too hard to imagine that concepts like Sidekick, if they ever become the new norm, could be used to extend power over telecommuting employees.

Just as the work gift of a smartphone in the 2010s carried the unwritten subtext that employees should now answer work emails in the evening, in this case the friendly, dual lures of social media, voyeurism and exhibitionism, could end up allowing your behavior to be controlled even when your boss is hundreds of miles away. Many people miss the office environment while working from home. But it also depends on the type of office environment you work in.

Standard kit for the office of the future?

The first Sidekick devices have already started going out to customers. “We currently have 25 teams on the platform,” Wu said. “Those teams average 20 new conversations a day and leave [the device] an average of six hours a day. Which, I’ll be honest, is actually quite a pleasant surprise for us.”

Currently, the Sidekick team continues to iterate, both at the software and hardware levels. “At some point, we’ll probably build our own custom hardware,” Chen said. It listed features like “AV1 hardware encoding and depth sensing,” which aren’t usually part of commercially available tablets.

But for customers who can’t wait, who want to be on the edge of remote work right now, you can visit Sidekick’s website and order a tablet that will be shipped immediately. The service is provided on a subscription model priced at $50 per month (although currently only $25).

Will it apply? That remains to be seen. Services like Zoom experienced significant adoption difficulties during the quarantine, much of which was related to businesses. (Why else would they move beyond software and into hardware?) Sidekick received backing from Y Combinator, which has previously backed big winners like Stripe, Airbnb, Cruise, DoorDash and Coinbase. And, as mentioned earlier, the benchmark of “always listening” smart speakers has proven to be one of the fastest growing product categories in technology.

Sidekick has 2020 written all over it. Whether the need for this type of device will maintain its momentum will largely depend on how the coronavirus and its consequences will change the way we work. If things return to some semblance of normal, this could be a flash in the pan that captures the zeitgeist like locked-down haircut lessons delivered via Zoom. If this is indeed the beginning of a major paradigm shift, tools like this could become a standard component of the office of the future.

Let’s put it this way: an always-on video calling device for remote work isn’t among the top 10 funniest things 2020 has thrown at us so far. Take from that what you will.

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Links: Always-on video chat is here, and it’s either genius or insane. Or both – Tekmonk Bio, Always-on video chat is here, and it’s either genius or insane. Or both – Kungfutv, Always-on video chat is here, and it’s either genius or insane. Or both – Blogtomoney

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