Mmhmm’s new app turns your video calls into video games

A screenshot of the Mmhmm app showing a man in a video chat.
One of Mmhmm’s rooms involves hanging out in floating bumper copters. | Image: Mmhmm/David Pierce

Phil Libin doesn’t buy the whole “enterprise metaverse” thing. Libin is the CEO of Mmhmm, a company making software for video creation and video chat, and he’s convinced that the future of work doesn’t involve putting on a headset every morning. He has lots of reasons — the technical overhead, the exhaustion that comes from wearing a headset for hours at a time, the total lack of image fidelity — but keeps coming back to one in particular. “How am I going to have my coffee if I’m wearing this thing on my face?”

Libin tells me this in an Mmhmm chat inside a “room” in the app that features two slowly bouncing copters on top of a Sega Genesis-looking background. Libin’s video feed is just his head; his actual background has been green-screened away. We’re talking in real time from hundreds of miles apart. He is, in fact, drinking coffee. At one point during our conversation, Libin drags an image into the Mmhmm app and it appears in the room, where he and I can both change its size or move it around the frame. I added a filter over my video that pixelated my face and then switched our room to an idyllic cabin in the woods. And then again to a steaming pool in which Libin and I floated with a couple of sleeping monkeys.

Libin and I were testing the latest features of Mmhmm, which the company calls OOO (which technically stands for Out of Office but mostly seems to just fit with Libin’s penchant for strange names). They’re designed to transform meetings from “a bunch of rectangles on a screen” into fun, collaborative digital spaces. OOO was a standalone beta product for a while, but it’s now part of the Mmhmm app. Mmhmm, which is getting a big redesign and a number of new features, is in public beta starting today for web, mobile, and desktop. It’s free to use, but you can pay to publish and save more videos or have more people on your calls. The whole thing is much closer to the metaverse than your average conference call.

Everybody has different moments where the app’s purpose seems to click, Libin says. For me, the first is when Libin drags in a video and presses play and, a moment later, I press pause. The video pauses for both of us: this isn’t a video we’re both watching; it’s a video we’re watching together. The second is in a very silly room called OOOsteroids, which turns everyone in the room into a triangular ship and lets you blast away asteroids with the space bar. The room seems fun but sort of pointless, so I ask Libin why it exists. “I actually tend to use it for board meetings, when we’re waiting for people to join,” he says. Instead of everyone awkwardly making small talk or, worse, sitting on mute waiting for things to start, they have a silly game to play before switching rooms to something more business-like.

A screenshot of the Mmhmm app showing an Asteroids-like game. Image: Mmhmm/David Pierce
With rooms like OOOsteroids, waiting for a call to start is a lot less awkward.

Going forward, Mmhmm thinks it can even make the rooms themselves responsive to what’s happening inside. In the floating copters room, for instance, “the idea was supposed to be, if you talk, you’ll start drifting up.” Quiet participants would drop to the bottom, making it obvious who should chime in or be asked to contribute. And if you’re the chatty type? “If you talk too much, you’ll literally drift off camera and be muted… because you really need to just shut up for a little bit.”

Mmhmm started as a tool for making work videos, a way to present slides and information more successfully. Instead of sharing your whole screen — which means you can’t see your audience and your audience can’t see you — Mmhmm sets you up like a late-night host, where you’re presenting information on a screen that floats above your shoulder.

Libin still sees this as a core part of Mmhmm’s offering. The original Mmhmm app is being rebranded as Mmhmm Studio and is specifically meant for people to make more engaging narrative videos for work. “We expect relatively few people to use it,” he says, “but we expect a significant portion of views to come from things made on that.” Mmhmm Studio is meant for CEOs making all-hands updates with lots of takes and media, the team imagines, but regular Mmhmm should be enough for most other uses. Along with the new Mmhmm app, the company is also building a tool called Mmhmm TV, which is a shared library of a team’s videos that can be easily accessed from within an Mmhmm chat. It’s a deliberately asynchronous tool, meant to replace meetings with on-demand video whenever possible.

Mmhmm has been trying to rethink the video landscape for a couple of years now, and Libin says it’s been tough. Meetings are so ingrained in how people work, and changing that is more of a cultural challenge than a technical one. The message that seems to work, he says, is not “have fewer meetings” or “cancel all your meetings” because most people just can’t. “The main idea is, don’t have shitty meetings,” Libin says. That message is resonating. “Only be talking synchronously with people when it’s actually a good conversation and you enjoyed it, and all of you got something out of it.”

A man presenting through Mmhmm on a Zoom call. Image: Mmhmm
Mmhmm started as a way to make presentations more interesting on Zoom and other platforms.

Mmhmm as a better presentation tool could be a fit for a lot of people. If you show a lot of slides, Mmhmm probably makes it easier and better. The full revolution Mmhmm promises, though, requires new apps, new ways of collaborating, and wholly new ideas about how meetings are supposed to work.

Libin is right, of course, that meetings are bad and they ought to be better. But bad meetings have resisted their own demise for an awfully long time. Libin and Mmhmm are hoping that by nudging users to trade some of their meetings for recorded videos and make the remaining meetings more fun, things can start to get a little better. In a world of TikTok filters and Snapchat lenses, “I don’t know how we’ve come to accept that work communications are boring,” he says. “It’s some sort of dystopian bureaucratic thing.”

The copters won’t come out in every meeting, of course. You can host a meeting by placing your heads around a virtual table or use a solid-color background — or even set one in a board room if you’d like. You could hack Mmhmm to look like Zoom without trying very hard. Figuring out the right setups will require some effort and require companies and employees to rethink what qualifies as “professional” communication. Libin acknowledges this will take some fine-tuning, including within the app itself. “You know where that line is when you cross it, right?” he says. “So let’s cross those lines, but try to make those things reversible.”

There’s no VR in Mmhmm’s present (or future). But digital spaces where people can hang out and do stuff together? Sounds an awful lot like the metaverse. Eventually, reluctantly, Libin agrees. “I’ve been reacting very negatively to the idea of the metaverse as this really stupid place no one wants,” he says. “But if you think about it like, well, let’s have some objects we can manipulate together while I can actually drink real coffee?” The metaverse, he says, shouldn’t be a place you go; it should be a new method of communication. It’s not Ready Player One, and it’s not “meetings but in a cartoon world.” It’s the telephone, it’s email, and it’s a way people talk to each other. That metaverse Libin can get behind.

Source: The Verge

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