Phil Libin doesn’t buy the whole “enterprise metaverse”. Libin is the CEO of Mmhmm, a company that makes video creation and video chat software, and he is convinced that the future of work does not involve putting on a headset every morning. He has many reasons – the technical overheads, the exhaustion that comes from wearing a headset for hours at a time, the total lack of image fidelity – but he keeps coming back to one in particular. “How am I supposed to have my coffee if I have this thing on my face?”
Mmhmm’s new app turns your video calls into video games
Libin tells me this in a Mmhmm chat inside an in-app “room” that has two slow-bouncing copters on top of a Sega Genesis-like background. Libin’s video feed is just his head; his actual background is green screened away. We are talking in real time hundreds of miles apart. He actually drinks coffee. At some point during the conversation, Libin drags an image into the Mmhmm app and it appears in the room, where he and I can both resize it or move it around in the frame. I added a filter over my video that pixelated my face and then changed our room to an idyllic cabin in the woods. And then again to a steaming pool where Libin and I floated together with a couple of sleeping monkeys.
Libin and I tested the latest features of Mmhmm, which the company calls OOO (which technically stands for Out of Office, but mostly seems to fit with Libin’s penchant for weird names). They are 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 major redesign and a slew 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. It’s all much closer to the metaverse than your average conference call.
Everyone has different moments where the app’s purpose seems to click, says Libin. For me, the first thing 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 is not a video we are both watching; there is a video we are watching together. The other is in a really stupid 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 kind 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 chatting or, worse, sitting quietly waiting for things to start, they have a silly game to play before changing rooms for something more business-like.
Going forward, Mmhmm believes it could even make the rooms themselves responsive to what’s going on inside. In the floating helicopter room, for example, “the idea was supposed to be that if you talk, you’ll start drifting up.” Silent participants would fall to the bottom, making it obvious who would chime in or be asked to contribute. And if you’re the talkative type? “If you talk too much, you literally want to go off camera and get muted … because you really need to shut up for a little while.”
Mmhmm started as a tool for creating working videos, a way to present slides and information more successfully. Instead of sharing the entire screen – meaning you can’t see the audience and the audience can’t see you – Mmhmm sets you up as an evening host, presenting information on a screen hovering over your shoulder.
Libin still sees this as a core part of Mmhmm’s offer. The original Mmhmm app is being rebranded as Mmhmm Studio and is specifically intended for people to create more engaging narrative videos for work. “We expect relatively few people to use it,” he says, “but we expect a significant portion of the views to come from things made on it.” Mmhmm Studio is intended for CEOs doing all-hands updates with lots of footage 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 an Mmhmm chat. It is a deliberately asynchronous tool, intended 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, isn’t “have fewer meetings” or “cancel all your meetings” because most people just can’t. “The main idea is, don’t have crappy meetings,” says Libin. That message resonates. “Only talk in sync with people when it’s actually a good conversation and you enjoyed it and everyone got something out of it.”
Mmhmm as a better presentation tool may suit many people. If you show a lot of slides, Mmhmm probably makes it easier and better. However, the full revolution Mmhmm laws requires new apps, new ways to collaborate and completely new ideas about how meetings should work.
Libin is of course right that meetings are bad and they should be better. But bad encounters have resisted their own demise for an awfully long time. Libin and Mmhmm hope that by pushing users to trade some of their encounters for recorded videos and making the remaining encounters more fun, things might start to improve a little. In a world of TikTok filters and Snapchat lenses, “I don’t know how we came to accept that work communication is boring,” he says. “It’s kind of a dystopian bureaucratic thing.”
“I don’t know how we came to accept that work communication is boring. It’s a kind of dystopian bureaucratic thing.”
Of course, the copters will not come out in every meeting. You can host a meeting by placing your head around a virtual table or using a plain background – or even put one in a boardroom if you want. You can hack Mmhmm to look like Zoom without trying very hard. Figuring out the right setups will take some effort and require companies and employees to rethink what qualifies as “professional” communication. Libin acknowledges that this will require some fine-tuning, including in 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 these things reversible.”
There is no VR in Mmhmm’s present (or future). But digital spaces where people can hang out and do things together? Sounds a lot like the metaverse. Finally, reluctantly, Libin agrees. “I’ve reacted very negatively to the idea of the metaverse, as this really stupid place that nobody wants,” he says. “But if you think of it as, well, let’s have some objects that we can manipulate together while I can actually drink real coffee?” The metaverse, he says, shouldn’t be a place you go; there should be a new way of communicating. It is not Ready player one, and it’s not “meetings, but in a cartoon world”. There’s the phone, there’s email, and there’s a way people talk to each other. That metaverse Libin can get behind.