Last year during the pandemic, a free browser extension called Netflix Party gained traction as it allowed people trapped in their homes to connect with distant friends and family while simultaneously watching the same TV shows and Netflix movies. It also allowed them to talk about the action in a sidebar chat.
Yet the company – later renamed Teleparty – was just the beginning, say two young companies that have raised start-up funds. One, a year-old upstart in London who launched in December, just wrapped up his tour this week led by Craft Ventures. The other, a four-year-old Bay Area-based startup, raised $ 3 million in previously undisclosed startup funding, including from 500 startups.
Both believe that even though investors have invested in virtual events and electronic technology companies, there is an even greater opportunity to develop some sort of multiplayer browsing experience that allows people to do a lot more together online. . Whether it’s watching sports, watching movies, or maybe even reviewing x-rays with your doctor one day, the two say more web surfing together is inevitable, especially for younger users. .
Companies take somewhat different approaches. The startup that Craft just bet on, leading its $ 2.2 million round, is Giggl, a London-based startup for a year that invites users of its web app to enjoy virtual sessions. He calls these “portals” where they can invite friends to browse content together, as well as text chat and call. Portals can be private rooms or go “public” so that everyone can participate.
Giggl was founded by four teenagers who grew up together, including its 19-year-old product manager Tony Zog. He has just graduated from the LAUNCH Accelerator Program. Still, it already has enough users – about 20,000 of whom use the service on an active monthly basis – that it is starting to build its own custom server infrastructure to minimize downtime and lower costs.
The main idea is to create a platform for all kinds of scenarios and charge them accordingly. For example, while people can chat for free while surfing the web or watching events together like Apple Worldwide Developers Conference, Giggl plans to charge more for premium features, as well as sell subscriptions to companies looking for more money. to collaborate. (You can check out a demo of Giggl’s current service below.)
Hearo.live is the other “multiplayer” startup – the one backed by 500 startups, as well as many angel investors. The company is the brainchild of Ned Lerner, who previously spent 13 years as Director of Engineering at Sony Worldwide Studios and shortly before as CTO of an Electronic Arts division.
Hearo has a narrower strategy in that users cannot browse absolutely anything together like with Giggl. Instead, Hearo gives users access to over 35 streaming services in the United States (from NBC Sports to YouTube to Disney +), and it relies on data synchronization to ensure that every user sees the same original video quality.
Hearo has also focused its efforts on sound, aiming to ensure that when multiple audio streams are created at the same time – say users are watching basketball playoffs together and also commenting – not everyone involved is confronted. to a noisy return. loop.
Indeed, Lerner says, thanks to echo cancellation and other “special audio tricks” that Hearo’s small team have developed, users can enjoy the experience without “the noise and other. elements spoil the experience ”. (“Pretty much we can do whatever Clubhouse can do,” Lerner says. “We’re just doing it while you’re watching something else because I honestly didn’t think people sitting down talking would be a big thing.” )
Like Giggl, Hearo Lerner envisions a subscription model; he also foresees a possible distribution of advertising revenue with sports broadcasters and says he is already working with the European Broadcasting Union on this front. Like Giggl, Hearo’s user count is conservative by most standards, with 300,000 downloads to date of its app for iOS, Android, Windows and macOS, and 60,000 monthly active users.
This begs the question of whether “watching together online” is a huge opportunity, and the answer does not yet seem clear, even if Hearo and Giggl have more compelling and viable technological means to generate income.
Startups are not the first to focus on standby-type experiences. Scener, an app founded by serial entrepreneur Richard Wolpert, claims it has 2 million active registered users and “the best and most active relationship with any studio.” But it markets itself a virtual movie theater, which is a slightly different use case.
Rabbit, a company founded in 2013, has allowed people to browse and watch the same content more broadly simultaneously, as well as text and video chatting. It’s closer to what Giggl is building. But Rabbit ultimately failed.
Lerner says it’s because the company shared the screen of other people’s copyrighted material and therefore couldn’t charge for its service. (“Essentially,” he notes, “you can get away with a certain amount of hacking if it’s not for your personal financial benefit.”) The coronavirus is fading away and people are re-engaging more actively in the physical world.
For his part, Lerner is not worried. It points to a generation that is much more comfortable watching videos on a phone than elsewhere. He also notes that screen time has become “an isolating thing” and predicts that it will eventually become “a great time to hang out with your friends,” much like watching a game on the couch together.
There is a precedent, in his mind. “Over the past 20 years, games have moved from single player, multiplayer, to voice chat appearing in games so people can actually hang out,” he says. “Because mobile is everywhere and social is fun, we believe the same will happen to the rest of the media industry. “
Zog believes the trends are also working in Giggl’s favor. “It’s obvious people are going to meet more often” as the pandemic ends, he says. But all of this real-world socialization “isn’t really going to replace” the kind of online socialization that’s already happening in many corners of the Internet.
Furthermore, he adds that Giggl wants “to make being together online as good as being together in real life.” This is the end goal here.