Introducing Dupl: the “togetherphone”

“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication” – Leonardo da Vinci

Dupl is rare case of a profound idea embodied in a new personal communications product. I believe that it is worth picking it out of the crowd and saying “THAT ONE!” Why so? Dupl is an exemplar of the key pattern of “showing and telling”, and also uses WebRTC as an enabling technology. As such, it embodies both the intellectual potential and practical possibility of re-inventing voice communications.

A breakthrough idea

Many years ago, I resolved to stop reading IT news about the “noise” of progress. That there was a new model, with a better CPU and more storage? Yawn! A battle for market share between vendors X and Y? Meh! Instead, I began to look for deeper fundamental patterns, and cases of genuinely new ideas. Dupl offers both.

Dupl is part of a meta-trend of the “post-telephony” voice movement, from which there have been other noteworthy services: two I would dare to name are Mindmeld and Talko. Unlike those, I’m the first person to be writing publicly about Dupl, which means I can’t just point you at a standard journalist or analyst review.

Hence I am going to break this up into three parts:

  • An introduction to what Dupl is, and why it’s interesting (this article)
  • An interview with founder and CEO Tony Kypreos (to follow next)
  • My evaluation of the product, and how I make sense of it (last of all)

Who is Dupl for?

Dupl is a real-time communications application targeted at “vertical relationships”. A typical example would be a healthcare provider engaged in a consultation with a patient. As the company and product name hints, it is solely concerned with “dyadic” relationships, which are those involving two parties. You might think of it as “relational media”, the smarter and better-mannered sibling of social media.

The problem Dupl addresses can be expressed through an example which I personally faced recently. I wanted to know where to stay when visiting a friend in an unfamiliar country. We had a tedious back-and-forth conversation through WhatsApp as I hunted for hotel deals, as I couldn’t easily tell which hotels were conveniently located, or were in an attractive surrounding area. With Dupl we could have both been on the booking site at once, collaboratively working through the map and deals together.

The unmet user need is not just a technological one for a better kind of shared experience. It’s about the rapport, empathy and trust that is built, and the necessary precondition of neither party being in a “one-up” position versus the other. Thus the product’s cleverness is deceptively simple, since it’s in the many things it doesn’t do.

What does Dupl do?

Dupl is in some ways easier to grasp from using it than reading about it. You can download Dupl for the iPad and try it out, as well as watch their marketing video.

What Dupl does is the exact opposite of click-to-call: it brings content into conversations, not conversation into content. You have one or more digital objects in a shared virtual space, and you talk about one at a time. Each object could (with the current version) be a picture, video, or web site; in future it might have navigational functions tuned to viewing a legal document, patient record, quantified self data, exam question, or trouble ticket.

Now, I’m not so easily impressed, so there has to be a bit more to it than that, right? Here are the key “new and different” features:

1. The ability to queue up multiple objects for discussion (“story-forming”)

When you start a Dupl “call”, you by default engage in 2-way video. However, that’s mainly for the human social niceties. All conversations in Dupl are about collaborative visual interaction, and you can select a “storyboard” of items to work through. This capability is embryonic, but points in a fascinating new direction.

2. The ability to co-navigate in harmony (“story-dwelling”)

Your typical webinar tool is designed for story-telling. One person has control, and everyone else is then subjugated to that person’s whims of what is visible and when. Dupl is a story-dwelling tool, much more like World of Warcraft than a phone call, where you collectively inhabit a space, and nobody is in overall control.

Dupl allows coordinated but unsynchronised dyadic views that can be re-synchronisedat will. It wouldn’t surprise me if the idea appears in the virtual reality research, but the execution to this level is, to the best of my knowledge, a first.

3. No distractions: it’s the “here and now” only

A paradoxical key feature of Dupl is to make it trivially easy to turn off video at any moment. “Video mute” is every bit as vital as “audio mute”. It’s also, I note, designed not to present “video off” as being a “deficient” setting, as a camera icon with a red line through it might do. The rapport is built through joint tactile actions, not through seeing badly lit close-up webcam images staring up someone else’s nose. (This is also more resource efficient than full-screen video calling.)

Show me!

You open a Dupl call much like any other real-time communications tool, by picking someone to talk to (in my case, from the local telecoms intelligentsia mafia, with apologies to them for the privacy violation):

List of four people to talk to

When we’re in a call, we’re given a “palette” of objects to talk about (highlighted in yellow):

The control to select an object to talk about

Let’s say we co-browse a web page. I scroll down. Your view doesn’t move as a result, but you see an arrow appear:

The control icon to re-synchronise views

If we are working our way through a series of photos, then the Dupl controls appear at the top:

A typical image co-browsing experience

Which wire do I need to plug into what? You get the idea. A video call with your head in the electricity cupboard isn’t the answer to this problem! The visual media is being overlaid with the Dupl environment. Note that this is still a “v0.1” product that is designed to allow the learning process of what the co-navigation and interaction needs are of different kinds of users.

How does Dupl differ from other products and services?

It is important to note what Dupl isn’t:

  • It’s not screen sharing. We each have a different view on the same object. It’s more like Google Docs, where you can see the other person’s cursor move around.
  • It’s not a videoconferencing system. It has video, but the key purpose of the video is to say hi, and then be done with it. It’s taking up both human cognitive and network resources that aren’t needed.
  • It’s not a phone call, which re-creates a part of a physical space; it’s a shared virtual space overlaid with synchronous real-time audio.
  • It’s not a conference call, since those aren’t dyadic.
  • It’s not photo sharing. The activity stream is kept invisible; everything is focused on “in the visual moment”, not what was, or will be.
  • It’s not like a multiplayer online gaming system, where you are forced to have a single synchronised view of the virtual space, and if someone changes something, that change appears for everyone, immediately.

Who is behind Dupl?

There’s one more thing Dupl isn’t. It is not the product a 19 year old whizzkid who got an Objective-C compiler for Christmas. Here’s the roster of the key figures behind it.

Founder & CEO Tony Kypreos has founded and led several mobile ventures and digital agencies, and has been a board member of T-Mobile International & T-Ventures, Bauer Media and (Nasdaq IPO). CTO George Kapetanakis leads the engineering team and has both mobile start-up and corporate leadership (Tropo, BskyB, T-Mobile, Ofoto & Ericsson) experience. CPO Matti Keltanen was Service Design Director at Fjord (acquired by Accenture), and led their New York and San Francisco offices.

Dupl’s investors are all domain experts and include Chris Liu venture partner at Horizons Ventures (former Global Director User Experience Intel Corporation, MD Fjord and Head of Human Interface Design Group Sony Europe) and others all come with specialist expertise, being business founders who have successfully exited digital businesses.

Dupl has also been recognised for its technology and design innovation with two SMART grant awarded by InnovateUK who promote, invest in and support UK technology-enabled innovation.

Why is Dupl interesting and significant?

OK, we’re done with the basic why, what and who. Here are some reasons why I think Dupl is one worth watching:

1. Delight, not desperation. Traditional voice “innovation” like call centre support has resulted in a dire user experience, or has worked entirely for corporations and done little for the individual. Dupl serves the individual with something everyone can easily understand and relate to.

2. Integration of narrative and presence. The Dupl interface services the human need to create stories that include content relating to historical and/or future events. Yet it is also tactile, and serves the need for the intimate sense of the other being present to you.

3. WebRTC flagship case study. This is precisely the kind of application that WebRTC exists to enable, and would be very challenging to create for multiple platforms without it.

4. It re-imagines the lifecycle of a conversation. The story-forming is completely absent from most tools; this begins the process of co-creating the thing formerly known as “the meeting agenda”. Dupl also allows time-shifting of media into a future conversation.

5. It reflects the dyadic nature of human relationships. The bond between me and each of my daughters is different from that we have as a family. Tools that attempt to satisfy group communication inevitably offer a lowest common denominator approach. Specifically, they fail to recognise the uniqueness of each dyad.

6. If offers an alternative to the video hype. Two-way video has been posited as the communications medium of the future, and that’s where it will always stay! It has its uses, niches and aficionados. But it’s not the answer to the communications problems most ordinary people have.

7. It breaks the power hierarchy. Tools like WebEx subtly distort the conversation (cf my interview with Ghislaine Caulat on Virtual Leadership). Conference calls with many participants are the “court of the king”, which requires them be preceded to huge numbers of dyadic calls in order to be effective, even at their limited role of information (and power) broadcast.

8. It supports ‘flow’ state. This overcomes the disillusionment with “media snacking” and the attention-demanding nature of asynchronous mailing, tweeting, and messaging.

9. True “user-first” design process. Many professions have the interaction pattern of a visual artefact being discussed in real-time. Dupl is not technology in search of a problem.

10. Follow the money. Like Talko, Dupl addresses the needs of advanced professional users, who are willing to pay for the productivity improvement that the emotional benefit of the tool offers.

In short, Dupl represents a new category of “consensual media” that facilitates equalinteraction of parties: the first “togetherphone”. This contrasts with “private” media like email and “social” media like Yammer. These intrinsically have one party as a “doer” and the other as someone who “has it done to them”.

In the next article I will let Tony Kypreos express in his words what he sees Dupl doing, why, and its significance in his eyes. I will then give my own evaluation of what this all means in the bigger picture of emerging communications.

Martin Geddes
PS – For the avoidance of doubt, as I don’t normally review products, I have no commercial relationship or stake in Dupl. I just see something special that others would easy miss.

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  1. […] article follows on from “Introducing Dupl: The ‘Togetherphone’”. Dupl opens up a new avenue in real-time communications, so I’m keen to share insights about it. […]

  2. […] 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, […]

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