Always-on video chat is here, and it’s either genius or insane. Or both

If you thought your days were currently filled with nonstop Zoom-style video meetings, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Well, at least not if a new startup founded by ex-employees of Google and big data analytics firm Palantir Technologies has its way.

Sidekick’s pitch is simple: What if, instead of remote workers having to schedule and make video calls with their teammates throughout the day, there was an always-on video connection that ran throughout the day, showing you your colleagues throughout working hours? And showing you to them. It’s, well, it’s like being in an office, actually. Except that you don’t have to be sharing the same physical space.

Sidekick isn’t yet another video-calling app, though. Like the newly announced 27-inch, dedicated Zoom video display unit, this is a stand-alone piece of hardware, consisting of an Android tablet that sits on your desk as you work like a digital picture frame. The idea is that it comes on at the start of the day (you get a notification when the first person arrives) and then stays on until you leave.

Or, since you’re presumably working from home, until you decide to throw in the towel and take the half-dozen steps to the kitchen to make dinner. By giving it its own dedicated device, the team behind Sidekick hopes that it will make videoconferencing even more of a regular part of the daily working environment. It’s the difference between having Google Assistant or Siri as a feature on your phone and having a voice assistant like the Amazon Echo or a Google Home. At least, that’s the ambition.

Beautiful serendipity

“Our big bet is that the most valuable conversations we have in an office environment are synchronous, unplanned communications,” Arthur Wu, co-founder and chief operating officer of Sidekick, told Digital Trends. “[The really important ones are] just, you know, spontaneous conversations.”

Wu may have a point. Video calling is fine for idle chat, but there’s a formality to it — especially when you need to book a specific slot in a co-worker’s schedule. And forget about terrible Zoom conference calls where people either speak over each other or just mute themselves throughout the ordeal.

“Our big bet is that the most valuable conversations we have in an office environment are synchronous, unplanned communications,”

Slack can be less formal, but conversations are text-based and may be stilted and asynchronous. Sending the message “Hey, Drew” is much the same as throwing out a greeting in person, but if Drew is in a different time zone or prioritizing between answering an open-ended greeting from a colleague or planning his numbers for that important meeting later that day, he might not respond immediately. Plus, there’s the “Slack bloat” of being tagged by dozens of co-workers.

The idea of Sidekick is to make possible some of those serendipitous interactions that would normally be possible only in an office environment. If it works, it could open up new channels of communication between teams. Even if it does mean adding a whole new level of intrusiveness into the work-from-home experience.

A problem for founders

“We all quit our jobs in March to actually work on a different startup idea,” said Andy Chen, CEO and co-founder of Sidekick. “My last day of work was March 20, two days after [New York] went into lockdown. It was a pretty terrifying time to be letting go of a stable income and health insurance. A week later, when COVID got really bad, three-quarters of us fled NYC to return to our childhood homes in New Jersey, Virginia, and California.”

When the four co-founders decided to band together, they never imagined they would be working remotely from one another. Certainly not as abruptly as happened.

“We quickly realized that it was going to be brutal starting a company while remote,” Chen continued. “We were missing out on all the spontaneous conversations and camaraderie from working in the same room. We found out the hard way that these interactions are critical for a founding team; they’re where the best ideas come from and where deep bonds are formed.”

The first version of Sidekick was a prototype they built to simulate being in the same room “to give this company a fighting chance.” Then they discovered that their hacked together workaround was the more compelling business. They began talking to other founders, and each one complained about experiencing the same problem.

“We quickly realized that our team wasn’t an anomaly for wanting an always-on video device,” Chen said. They decided to pivot to build Sidekick as a commercial product.

The panopticonization of the home office

“It’s not for everyone,” Wu said. Certainly, it’s very easy to imagine Sidekick being some kind of Silicon Valley punchline; perhaps topped off by a scene in which Sherry Turkle’s lamentation of how technology makes us “alone together” is borrowed as a product tagline. Sidekick could be this year’s version of the “selfie stick” — although if it’s a fraction of the success of that invention, its co-founders will be very, very happy indeed.

Wu described the ideal users as, “fast-paced, close-knit teams who feel they need a way to feel together. … The biggest thing is just building sort of a common social energy and atmosphere. I think that people who’ve had existing relationships that have been forced into remote work due to COVID [will be] able to sustain those relationships. But over time it will be really, really hard to build new relationships or new culture amongst teams that get formed during the remote work age.”

There are reasons to be fearful as well; not least the possible concern about transforming your home office into a virtual panopticon. The panopticon was a conceptual prison designed by English philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Bentham in the late 18th century. Circular in design, with a large watchtower at its center, the theory behind the panopticon was that prisoners would behave as if they were being watched at all times: the mere presence of the watchtower being effective for regulating their behavior.

A similar phenomenon exists in today’s open-plan offices. In theory, the open-plan office is a far more welcoming environment than the cubicle farm. But the layout of these offices causes employees to self-police their behavior, knowing that colleagues and managers may be watching. It is not too difficult to imagine that if concepts like Sidekick ever became the new norm, they might be used to extend power over employees working from home.

Just like the work gift of a smartphone in the 2010s carried the unwritten subtext that employees should now respond to work emails in the evening, in this case, the friendly, twin social media lures of voyeurism and exhibitionism could wind up allowing your behavior to be controlled even when your boss is hundreds of miles away. Plenty of folks miss the office environment while working from home. But that also depends on the kind of office environment you work in.

Standard kit for the office of the future?

The first Sidekick devices have already started to go out to customers. “We have 25 teams on the platform right now,” Wu said. “Those teams have, on average, 20 new conversations a day and leave [the device] on for an average of six hours a day. Which is, I’ll be honest, actually quite a pleasant surprise for us.”

At present, the Sidekick team is continuing to iterate, both on the level of software and hardware. “At some point, we’ll probably build our own custom hardware,” said Chen. He cited features like “AV1 hardware encoding and depth sensors,” which aren’t usually part of commercially available tablets.

But for customers who can’t wait, who want to be on the bleeding edge of remote working right this instant, you can visit Sidekick’s website and order a tablet to be dispatched immediately. The service is provided on a subscription model at a charge of $50 per month (although right now it is only $25).

Will it catch on? That remains to be seen. Services like Zoom have experienced significant bumps in adoption during lockdown, with much of that being enterprise-related. (Why else would they be moving beyond software and into hardware?) Sidekick has received support from Y Combinator, which has previously backed massive winners like Stripe, Airbnb, Cruise, DoorDash, and Coinbase. And, as noted earlier, the reference point of “always listening” smart speakers have shown themselves to be one of the fastest-growing product categories in tech.

Sidekick has 2020 written all over it. Whether the need for this kind of device retains its momentum will hinge very much on the way that coronavirus and its aftermath changes the way we work. If things go back to some semblance of normality, this could be a zeitgeist-capturing flash-in-the-pan like lockdown haircutting lessons delivered via Zoom. If this really is the beginning of a massive paradigm shift, tools such as this could become a standard component of the office of the future.

Let’s put it this way: An always-on video calling device for remote working isn’t in the top 10 ridiculous things 2020 has thrown at us so far. Take from that what you will.

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