In Star Trek: The Next Generation, Captain Jean-Luc Picard receives many video messages from Starfleet while aboard the USS Enterprise. Today, Danny Robinson’s latest tech startup has the potential to make a similar mode of communication a part of everyday life.
Robinson is the cofounder and CEO of Perch Communications. Founded in May, the Gastown-based company launched its free video communication app for the iPhone on November 27. By mounting an iOS device running the app on the wall of their home, a family can use Perch to stay in touch via asynchronous video messages.
According to Robinson, the app currently employs facial detection but will make use of facial recognition in the future. It also has a motion-detection feature. Perch hopes to come out with an Android app early next year and plans to optimize its iOS app for the iPad. The startup closed a seed round of funding with angel investors earlier this year.
A West Vancouver resident, Robinson also cofounded the online promotion service Strutta Media and the startup accelerator Bootup Labs. He’s a former CEO of the B.C. Innovation Council, a Crown agency.
The Georgia Straight reached Robinson by phone in North Vancouver.
What’s so Star Trek about Perch?
I think that if you contrast what we do with other synchronous video conferencing services, like Skype and FaceTime, those services are built around the multiple-decade-old phone-call paradigm—where you make a phone call and someone has to be there at the same time on the other end and you answer it. That’s how a phone call is made, and that’s how all the video conferencing services work today. We have a different approach. We do have ambitions to have synchronous video as well. Right now, it’s only asynchronous. But the asynchronous part is the most important part, I think, because most people aren’t in front of their phone waiting for a video call to come in at any moment.
The other thing about it is Skype and FaceTime are this weird, awkward social thing. You get a video call, and you almost don’t want to answer it, because you’re like, “I don’t know how my hair looks.” With Skype calls, they start with audio and then you have to hit the video button. You’re like, “Is the other person going to hit ‘video’? Do they even want to do video?” It’s kind of this weird, awkward moment when you first make a call.
With Perch, the video is always on. It’s always running, and it captures serendipitous conversations that happen throughout the day within the family. For example, when my kids have something to say or my wife wants to ask me what time I will be home, she doesn’t text me anymore. It’s easier, it’s frictionless for her to walk up to the wall, look at the Perch camera that’s mounted there, and ask me when I’m going to be home. The kids are the same. My daughter liked to show off her report card once, which is sort of the moment we learned about what we were working on and how it was working. She did that naturally, without even being prompted, and with every other form of communication at her fingertips. She could have SMSed me—she could have done anything—which she does do often, but she doesn’t do it as much now because Perch is in the house. It’s running all the time, and it’s so much easier for her to just walk up and talk to me any time.
How do you install it in the home?
You download and install the app from the App Store. Once it’s installed, you tap on the button that says “camera”. We suggest going out and buying some Velcro at any hardware store and then attaching the Velcro to the back and sticking it to the wall. You also have to remember that you need to plug it into the wall. It needs to be plugged in all the time for it to really work. If the camera’s running all the time, it takes up the battery. That’s the best way to use it.
The two best places to mount it are in the kitchen and at the front door. We definitely don’t recommend installing it in the bedroom or anywhere you might be doing sensitive things. We don’t want people to use this product for anything negative or security-centric. We’re not a security app, though everybody we know has this piece of mind come over them when they’re using it in the house. They know when the door opens and someone walks in the front door—let’s say their kids come home from school. They get a push notification on their phone, and they can watch their kids coming in. Their kids usually wave to the camera on the way in the door and say, “Hi Dad, I’m home. Everything’s good.” That’s kind of a comfort that you get from it. But we’re not billing it as a security device at all.
You mentioned Perch is designed for family use, but are there potential work applications?
Absolutely. I’ve got two accounts on Perch. I’ve got my Gmail account, which is my personal one that I use for family, and I’ve got an @perch.co. Everybody else in our office has one as well, and when we log in with that our “family” is our team. We almost exclusively communicate using Perch. We’ve got some people that work remotely—a guy in Atlanta and somebody in San Francisco—and it’s an amazing feeling. It’s hard to describe, but it’s a feeling of being connected. It feels like they’re part of the team, even though they’re not in the same office. I know this is a problem that a lot of companies struggle with, in terms of remote offices, let alone remote staff. I know that Telus is sending...a staggering amount of their workforce to work from home. When that happens, they’re going to need some pretty powerful abilities to communicate and stay connected.
What do you see as the key trends in video communication in the coming years, and how does Perch fit into that?
The key trend is what insider techies call ambient video communication. That would be a camera that’s running all the time and always on, that connects to different locations in a seamless, natural way. There’s a movie trailer out right now [for Robot & Frank]...and about 15 seconds in to the trailer this guy receives this video phone call from his daughter. If you look at the nuances of how that call was answered, that’s where video communication is going and that’s where we’re going....
But basically using gestures, facial recognition, motion detection, and computer machine learning, devices and cameras will know what you intend to do, who you intend to talk to, when you decide that you want to talk to somebody, what’s interesting, what isn’t interesting. Based on when you’re in the house, it will know what music you like to listen to. It may suggest other music depending on who else is there.
You described applications for families and the office setting. But do you see the app ever being used in such a way as Skype or the telephone—calls between strangers, calls between acquaintances, that kind of thing?
That’s definitely something that we’re looking at doing. But we’re taking a very careful approach to how that works. So it will not work like a phone number or an email address that anonymous people can just call. But it will work in a way like a social network might work, where people have a relationship and you can map that relationship through. It’s different than what you’ve seen, but it is something we definitely want to figure out. We don’t know all the answers yet, and that’s what we’re working on.
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