"I personally don’t think [the future] is about big data, I think it’s about people uniquely and emotionally connecting," says Tara Lemmey, whose work as a technologist goes from a faculty post at the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine to a national security task force. "To me, it’s all about the emotional connection—everything I’ve ever worked on."
And for the last four years, what Lemmey and her company, Net Power & Light, have been working on is Spin, a technology intended to break the talking-head format of video-conferencing products like Skype. On Monday, it will release a free iOS app that allows up to 10 people to share a virtual environment via video chat.
Its default view is not the front-facing camera on an iPad or iPhone, but the camera facing the world, which suggests a feeling of "let me show you this" rather than "let’s stare at each other and talk." All commands are touch-based and meant to be intuitive. In order to increase the volume of someone who is speaking, for instance, you pull their window to make it bigger. To make them quieter, you pinch to make the window smaller.
What serves Spin’s mission to mimic reality best, however, is that there’s more to do than talk.
When you enter a Spin conversation, you’re put into a shared virtual playground with other participants. In this environment, you can draw things together, play and discuss YouTube videos, or share photos from your camera roll, Flickr, or Facebook—all without breaking off your video chat.
This relieves some of the inherent pressure of video conversations. You don’t always need to think of something to say. Instead, you can do something together, as you would if you met in person. Lemmey, for instance, says she uses Spin to watch football games with her family, posting YouTube videos of fight songs or throwing tomatoes (another of Spin’s features) as appropriate.
Though Net Power & Light says it may eventually charge for premium features in Spin, there are bigger opportunities for the technology outside of the app. The operating system, Lemmey says, can handle an "Olympic stadium" of people simultaneously, which would make it a perfect companion for television or live events.
A pilot program with the soccer team D.C. United used Spin technology to allow fans to watch games together. It has also been used to connect 500 students from Japanese, Chinese, Brazilian, and Indian classrooms for a semester of lectures by a popular Harvard political philosophy professor.
"We think we’re moving from the information age of computing to the experience age, and we really want to help provoke that into being," Lemmey, one of Fast Company's Most Creative People of 2013, says. "We’re just starting to creep out."