Dupl, the ‘togetherphone’: What does it all mean?

This is third article in a series on Dupl, the first commercial “togetherphone”. You can read the previous description of Dupl and Interview with CEO Tony Kypreos. In this article I would like to offer my evaluation of Dupl, and explain the context in which it sits.

I spent pretty much the whole of 2014 researching the state of the art in voice communications, and have spent the last decade immersed in the subject. I can say with high confidence that what you see with Dupl is the seedling of something important. It is just the beginning, and we are judging it against a promise of potential growth into something big, sturdy, and valuable.

It would be so easy to dismiss Dupl as the addition of a few navigation icons around a variant of screen sharing. That was the same mistake many analysts and commentators made when the iPhone was launched. Dupl does for voice what the iPhone did for smartphones. It starts from scratch, looking at the user’s jobs to be done, and offers a uniquely humanistic tactile and graphical UI to do them. In doing so, it strips out the entire tick-box feature junk.You know how the iPhone story ended for the competition.

The humanisation of technology

I see Dupl as being a small step in a much, much broader trend. We are seeing a slow “humanisation” of all technology, which steers us away from a mechanical view of people and their relationship to computing machines. We are not interchangeable cogs in a digital workflow. We each have emotions, and exist in a social fabric woven from fine relationships.

Indeed, it is a product that I think Steve Jobs would approve of: he got lambasted for wasting computing cycles on slick graphical interfaces for both the Mac and iPhone. He made interaction natural, rather than doing “real computer work”. Dupl is very “Jobsian” in that the users could never have asked for this, but they know it’s what they needed after they experience it.

Humans are innately social, yet most “social” media comprises multiple solitary gestures thrown at each other from a distance, like a bored child seeking attention. As a wise person once told me, “every gift is a demand, usually for love”. Today’s social media is a stream of false gifts that place a lot of demand, and provide little love in return.

Dupl is the antithesis of these “antisocial” media. It pays close attention to the needs of its users both individually and jointly. How so? The key take-away from my year of research is to stop looking at the cool features, and instead examine what the impact of a tool is on human power relationships and human feelings. Dupl rebalances machine logic with both better ethics and empathy.

Get the power structure right

By anchoring the sharing within voice, both parties are investing their most precious asset, their time, at the same rate, and thus are equally vested in the sharing act. As a result, the mutual importance of the shared object is greatly elevated, and it transitions for being merely “social media” to “relational media”.

Dupl (partially) redresses the power imbalance that exists in most communications tools. With phone calls we have the “hegemony of the caller”, that implies the caller both gets to choose the timing and subject of the call. This has been carried over into UC and webinar systems with the “hegemony of the presenter”.

In contrast, everyone in Dupl is an equal, which drives trust. This is reminiscent of Talko, which is also a conversation of equals, and anyone can rescind their voice from a recording; it doesn’t have a concept of “administrator” at that level. It’s a different ethos, and one which can be technically copied, but culturally would be impossible to do for most vendors.

Screen sharing is disorienting and disempowering, elevating one user to have capricious power over the other(s). There is a natural interaction of how any tool works and how the human relationships work. For instance, when you give control to a “presenter”, you also by default are giving implicit power over the content and decisions to that person. Yet if your aim is to get emotional buy-in of a diabetic patient to a particular diet, that’s exactly the wrong thing to do. Dupl addresses that human need for a sense of control.

Furthermore, by eschewing video, Dupl subtly levels the communications playing field. Video may be great for me (white, male, 43, gorgeous), but for many women, the disabled and the elderly it is seen as a burden, and a source of negative feelings and judgement. It has its place, but it’s an “amuse yeux”; something for your vision to only transiently sample, before moving on to more substantive things.

Finally, the dyadic form of Dupl avoids all of the problems of group interactions. I could make edgy allusions to erotic acts and their scaling properties. Two is the default for strong and stable relationships for a good reason.

Doing good by feeling good

Dupl also works along the grain of human sensory and emotional feelings, rather than against them. The current interface is tactile and visual, which drives that empathetic sense of rapport. It is engineering a feeling state. This is a key finding of our research: merely delivering “logical” outcomes is not enough.

Dupl transcends the “cult of productivity” by embodying presence as one of its key attributes, which is the sensual sense of the other. That you do things together is crucial: a “multi-sensory sense of other” is then brought to you through touch, sight and sound. (For more on the value of true presence, I commend this 2004 article by Stuart Henshall. The ones that withstand the test of time are worth re-reading.)

Dupl also works to reduce the cognitive load and your consumption of your brain’s glucose budget. The dirty secret of the telecoms industry is that video is often a value-subtract, and mobile video is particularly horrid. The mental effort of holding a screen, and thinking what the other person is seeing (direction, lighting, background, your own prettiness) is costly. Re-orienting the device, where the camera is now facing backwards and the image moves in the opposite direction to your hand movements, is practically painful. The “video off” button is really a “concentration on” button.

Better than ‘being there’

The technical features of Dupl also reflects the direction in which human narrative is created and shared.

As Jason Silva reminds us, computers are all, literally, psychedelics: they involve the manifestation of the imaginations of our minds. Humans love stories, and Dupl is offering us a virtual campfire with shared hallucinations of otherwise invisible things. Dupl is the shaman that creates a virtual space in which we can have those imaginings together. That’s why it’s the first commercial “togetherphone”, taking us beyond telephony.

Unlike immersive gaming, we’ve got here a platform designed for consensual use. No team is trying to blast the other to death! This shows in two ways, the story-forming and story-dwelling aspects. One party assembles a narrative, and then both inhabit it as equals. This escapes from the limited story-telling modalities of product in the past.

Hence Dupl highlights a key feature of the post-telephony voice world. A telephone call is just what it says in Greek: “tele” – “phonos”. We get audio from afar. The highest aspiration for a phone call has been to accurately reproduce the illusion of “being there” in the afar place. Dupl is “better than being there”: it provides a machine-enriched virtual environment in which people can interact around the virtual “conversation objects”, which act as catalysts for relational outcomes.

This “show and tell” approach is key: as Douglas Galbi comments to Stuart’s post “[a] ‘show and tell communicator’ captures much better the potential value in making sense of presence.”

Show me the money!

At last, the cash. If Dupl gets sold by minutes of access, I vote for the re-establishment of cruel and unusual punishments for digital entrepreneurs. The business model for Dupl is the domain-specific feature set. In particular, it offers the opportunity tomonetise the activity stream: who watched what for how long? Did you really see and read those terms?

Finally, we can use WebRTC for something other than arbitraging voice revenue models.

The limits of Dupl

To avoid any accusation of writing a Dupl hagiography, it’s worth noticing its limits and drawbacks:

  • Using WebRTC means that you’re (today) stuck with all the performance issues that entails. Dupl calls have the same kind of failure rate as Skype ones, which means the best quality is way better than managed landline voice, but the worst is way worse. Enterprises and ISPs struggle with offering voice and video quality assurance.
  • We’re still locked into the “call” model, which preserves the “hegemony of the caller”. That’s OK to the extent that it’s a familiar way of working. Dupl has focused on solving one thing well – story-dwelling – and other people may have to figure out how to manage the rendezvous of the participants. Talko re-imagines the call, but doesn’t reconceive synchronous sharing.
  • Is it a product or a feature? All three of Dupl, Talko, and Mindmeld solve orthogonal problems. They respectively re-invent sharing, rendezvous, and recollection. My hunch is that users will come to demand super-powers across multiple domains, and elements of all of these (and more) will begin to appear together.
  • The story-forming and story-dwelling still exist in some tension. If I assemble a series of photos to view, should you be able to jump forwards? This may need more work.
  • Who owns the activity stream? What information is being collected about me, and how are the “hidden” power relationships being managed?

Watch out, there’s an innovator about

I am not an analyst, and I don’t write market forecasts, or predict winners and losers. That said, Dupl is intellectually among the strongest of the new players that I have seen emerge in the last decade. That product innovation now needs to be matched with market execution, plus the usual blessing of good luck and opportune timing.

The dissolution of telephony as the dominant form of voice communication is thetechnology story of the next decade. WebRTC is being put to play here, and there will be applications that are break-out and become mass platforms. With a forecast of 6 billion end points by 2019, the opportunity is a whopper.

This can be reflected in this quote from The Atlantic (on “The Fall of Facebook”):

A simple but rich messaging platform—perhaps with specialized hardware—could replace the omnibus social network for most purposes. “I think we’re shifting in a weird way to one-on-one conversations on social networks and in messaging apps,” says Shani Hilton, the executive editor for news at BuzzFeed, the viral-media site.

If Dupl isn’t such a thing, then we will have at least made some amazing learnings as to what it might be.

Martin Geddes
PS – I would welcome anyone to Dupl me, but my mother wants her borrowed iPad back. I bought an iPhone to be able to use Talko; will I find myself buying an iPad to use Dupl? That will be the real test of putting my money where my mouth is. Let’s see!

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