Home >Technology >News >Remember office banter? Audio apps want to bring that back
Voice platforms like Chalk, Watercooler, Space and Voiceroom aim to foster the random chats that bind
Voice platforms like Chalk, Watercooler, Space and Voiceroom aim to foster the random chats that bind
wsj

Remember office banter? Audio apps want to bring that back

  • Voice platforms like Chalk, Watercooler, Space and Voiceroom aim to foster the random chats that bind

After months of video chats and binge-watching streaming video, some people are trying out digital platforms built for audio.

The exclusive networking app Clubhouse, from Alpha Exploration Co, has drawn attention to the space, but others such as Chalk App Inc, Space Soft Inc and Watercooler are using voice for a range of experiences.

“People are tired of looking at screens," said Gabriel Cheung, group creative director at R/GA, a digital agency owned by Interpublic Group of Cos. “They are looking for different ways of experiencing things."

Audio platforms aren’t trying to reinvent the telephone, either. They let users drop in and out of a conversation informally, or keep a chat running in the background instead of dropping everything for a scheduled call. Some services let users hang out in conversations programmed to start at a regular time, or exchange voice messages.

Companies like Watercooler and Yac Media Inc are creating new experiences for employees who are largely still stuck working from home.

Watercooler, a voice platform currently being tested by several companies, aims to re-create the casual conversation of employees on their way to a meeting or before lunch. Users set up new rooms for conversations or join an existing one. Rooms aren’t assigned topics, but Watercooler is looking to organize some around workplace rhythms—for instance, a room for lunch time.

Watercooler wants to be a place where colleagues get to know each other informally, rather than yet another productivity app, said company co-founder Russ d’Sa.

“How do you connect with the people that you spend eight-plus hours a day with? You spend the majority of your life with these people," Mr. d’Sa said. “And now that connection, that connective tissue is gone, and it’s all just about work."

In contrast, Yac Media pitches its own service as a productivity tool. The Yac platform lets users leave each other audio messages, with features including automated transcription and speeded-up playback.

Yac aims to restore the human connection to workplace relationships by letting people hear their colleagues’ tone and inflection.

“In remote work, it’s so insanely important to hear a human, versus an avatar on the screen," said Justin Mitchell, chief executive of Yac. But phone calls and video meetings can be intrusive and require people to block out time in their day, he said.

When it was introduced as a hackathon project in 2018, Yac, which was first named “Yelling Across Cubicles," worked more like a Walkie-Talkie, facilitating live spoken exchanges. But the company switched its approach in April 2019. Letting users listen to messages when they wanted to, rather than making them listen live, respected people’s time more, Mr. Mitchell said. The platform has about 5,000 users and has raised $2.2 million from investors, with Slack Technologies Inc leading the latest funding round this month.

Audio platforms tap into a trend that predates the coronavirus pandemic, said Mr. Cheung of R/GA. Even before the sudden loss of many in-person work environments, people wanted more human experiences and interactions that don’t rely on a screen, he said.

But these platforms face difficulties, not least the low barriers to entry. Audio apps are simple to develop, which makes them easy to copy, according to Mark Pytlik, chief executive of advertising agency Stink Studios.

To find a winning formula, developers should consider the user experience, said Danika Laszuk, general manager of Betaworks Camp, a startup-development program run by Betaworks Ventures, an investor in Yac Audio platforms that generate a constant stream of conversation create extra mental clutter for people already juggling various communications platforms, she said. Apps that provide programmed experiences—facilitating conversation at a set time, or a on a particular topic—may be more useful, she added.

Chalk and Space are two apps working along those lines. Chalk was inspired by Discord Inc, a chat app for videogamers that is starting to get broader traction. Chalk originally started as group messaging, but added one-on-one conversations and larger communities. Users can also send each other direct text messages on the app.

Chalk has tweaked its user interface in other ways as well. It removed a display counting listeners in conversations, hoping to encourage participants to focus on the discussion, rather than how many people showed up. And it stopped automatically playing audio when users entered a community because users didn’t like the jarring burst of sound, said Juyan Azhang, co-founder and chief executive of Chalk.

Another live-conversation app, Space, wants to become a learning community, where people from any walk of life can enter a conversation on broad topics like mental health to specialized industry subjects.

Unlike some audio apps, Space doesn’t let users browse among other conversations if they are already listening to one—a design choice aimed at sustaining participants’ attention, said Zeeshan Sheikh, co-founder of Space. Still, that could change. Co-founder Brayson Ware said the strategy is in flux because Space wants to adapt based on how people use the app.

Moderating conversations presents another challenge for voice-chat apps, according to Daniel Kelley, associate director of the Anti-Defamation League’s center for technology and society. The videogame industry, which uses voice-chat in multiplayer games, has struggled to control bullying, offensive speech and harassment.

The ephemeral nature of live conversations makes it harder to document abuse, Mr. Kelley said. The tools available to moderate audio apps “are significantly less sophisticated" than those used for text, he added.

More voice platforms continue to pop up. Voiceroom, developed by two undergraduates at the University of California, Berkeley, went live this month. Voiceroom is meant to emulate the way conversations naturally occur in a big group of friends or during a lecture at school, when people break into side chats. When users move around the room, the sound of other people gets louder or softer, depending on how close you are to them.

Proponents of audio apps say they have the potential to become everyday tools, even as workers return to the office and people start to interact in-person again—partly because these tools are variations on experiences, like phone calls and conference calls, that people are familiar with.

“We’re in a moment where certain technological advancements are really slightly new variations that have existed for a really long time," said Mr. Pytlik of Stink Studios.

Write to Ann-Marie Alcántara at ann-marie.alcantara@wsj.com

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