A pandemic-inspired start-up is turning boring videoconferences into 'Twitch for olds'

Key Points
  • Mmhmm is new beta software that makes it easy to add visual effects and other production to videocalls. 
  • It has raised 4.5 million in seed funding from investors including Sequoia Capital and is led by tech industry veteran Phil Libin. 
  • It's is one of the first examples of a new Silicon Valley start-up launching a consumer product inspired by the pandemic.
Mmhmm's top feature for business users is the ability to present slideshows while simutaneously displaying your face.
Kif Leswing/CNBC

A new start-up led by a tech industry veteran wants to make your video calls a lot more productive and entertaining.

Mmhmm — that's the name of the app — lets users control the image they broadcast on Zoom or Google Hangouts calls. For instance, they can present a slide deck like it's actually behind them, move their face around the screen, and even change into a hologram like R2D2's projection of Obi-Wan Kenobi in "Star Wars."

Mmhmm, which has raised $4.5 million in seed funding from investors including Sequoia Capital, is one of the first examples of a new Silicon Valley start-up focusing on a consumer product inspired by the coronavirus pandemic, which forced employees across the country to work from home and has boosted the fortunes of software companies that make remote-work products.

"I don't think we could have come up with this idea in the before-time," Phil Libin, CEO of software development studio All Turtles, said on a video call. Mmhmm started as a project in the All Turtles software studio, and it could become a separate company if the app ends up taking off. 

Zoom and other videoconferencing software see Mmhmm as an additional "camera." The app takes the video from the camera, applies graphics and other creative improvements and passes it on the app used to actually make the call. 

Users can apply colored filters to themesleves to inject a little bit of fun into a video call.
Kif Leswing/CNBC

Libin, who previously ran note-taking software company Evernote, has high hopes that the software can be a creative tool, as well, and that YouTubers can use it to improve their videos.

In fact, he said the original code name for the app was "Twitch for olds," referring to the Amazon-owned video game streaming platform. 

Several features promise to be useful to users who now spend all day videoconferencing. Instead of sharing your screen, you can upload a presentation that appears behind you, similar to graphics behind a TV anchor.

On Zoom, users can change their background if they don't want to share the exact environment they're videoconferencing from. Mmhmm includes several backgrounds, but it also supercharges the concept, enabling users to move their face around the screen and shrink or enlarge their image, or even apply a filter that makes the user look like a hologram. 

Business users will also appreciate the ability to saving the video call as a presentation. While users can watch the entire presentation video to catch up, they can also simply go through the slides and turn audio on and off when it's needed. When a call is over, the presenter can send a single URL that gives recipients access to the slide deck and corresponding video. 

Libin also hopes that Mmhmm will make videoconferencing a little easier on tired users by giving them additional control over what they broadcast, like limiting how much of your body is displayed. The software even has a "hide me" feature that removes the presenter's silhouette from the window.

"That makes it like much less fatiguing and tiring because it triggers the familiar neural patterns of what we all do naturally, when we're in person, that's been completely lacking when everyone is just a head in a box," Libin said.

For now, the software available only to beta testers — you can apply to join — and works only on the most recent version of MacOS, Catalina. When it eventually launches more widely, it will be targeted at consumers, not just the enterprise. Libin envisions a free version and a premium version that requires a subscription. "I doubt it's going to be particularly expensive," Libin said.

Libin believes Mmhmm will be part of a larger market of software targeting what he calls personal or professional video presence — tools that make videoconferencing and broadcasts easier and slicker as increased usage persists even after the pandemic.

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