Sqwiggle’s Webcam Eye Gives Remote Workers a Virtual Office

Sqwiggle co-founder Matt Boyd has an interesting challenge in convincing people to get on board with his company’s online workspace platform: making sure they’re comfortable being on camera. All the time.

The idea behind the product is to help people who work remotely from their computers stay in constant communication, instead of, say, having to set up times for Google Hangouts or GoToMeeting. That means Sqwiggle is on constantly, using the webcams built into most computers to post black and white pictures of workers every ten seconds, so that colleagues know they’re available. When they want to chat, they can simply click on a photo and immediately start communicating via HD color video.

“The whole point is to make it seamless,” Boyd says. “We want to make it very, very useful, but also make [people] feel comfortable. We’re pushing some of the right buttons in some ways.”

Though the idea of colleagues having a constant eye on each other might sound a little overly invasive, Boyd insists that its convenience trumps whatever initial discomfort users might have, and they get over it pretty quickly.

“It’s like Google Street View. Early on, a lot of people didn’t want their house on Street View, but then people started using it and that useful, emotional response was triggered, and people had less of a concern about it.”

Plus, constant availability is the key to the product, he says. If the system allowed users to turn their cameras off, they would be disconnected from the workspace, and the whole point is that everyone can easily collaborate at any time, even though they’re not in the same office.

But, constant coverage means the company also has to mitigate any security concerns users might have. To make sure that outsiders can’t access feeds or information, everything is encrypted. The communication is peer to peer, so even workers at Sqwiggle can’t access video feeds. “We take that very seriously,” Boyd says.

The company has also considered adding features that would allow users to distort their images, so that users could see whether their colleagues are at their work stations and available, but not see a detailed photo of them at all times. For now though, it’s just a possibility for the future, and “the exact implementation is hard to see right now,” he says.

Cofounders Boyd, Tom Moor and Eric Bieller all conceived of similar product ideas separately, but united over their shared interest after meeting up at a Super Bowl party. Bieller and Boyd had grown up together, and both worked as freelancers. Boyd had also spent time on the road travelling with a band called Cries Hannah, while Moor had cofounded a sharing app called Buffer, which had a distributed team. “The loneliness of remote working is something we’ve all felt from time to time,” Boyd says.

The Swiggle desktop app in action. The three founders appear in the snapshots. Top left: Eric Bieller. Top right: Matt Boyd. Second row, middle: Tom Moor.

The Swiggle desktop app in action. The three founders appear in the snapshots. Top left: Eric Bieller. Top right: Matt Boyd. Second row, middle: Tom Moor.

Originally, Sqwiggle was conceived as a way for remote workers to stay connected, but the three cofounders have found that the service is useful in big offices as well. Before co-founding the company, Boyd worked in a giant space at online real estate search company Zillow. “Walking across the office became a hassle,” he says. “I would work with different people in different parts of the building and that’s a big time waste.” But overall, the service seems to resonate most with remote workers.

Sqwiggle has a pretty simple pricing scheme—$9 per employee per month, and clients can cancel at any time.

It might seem as though the remote communication sphere is pretty crowded. Services like Google Hangouts and GoToMeeting have made it easy for offices to keep their remote workers connected during meetings; Apple’s FaceTime makes it easier than ever to have face-to-face communication over iPhones, iPads, and Macs, and of course there’s always Skype. But Sqwiggle wasn’t worried about saturation in the space. “We’re not scared of the completion,” Boyd says. “It didn’t deter us at all from starting this company. If a few people use the app and love it every single day, we’ve won.”

Plus, as the three founders see it, they had a product that wasn’t just a virtual meeting room, but a true virtual office. The point was to add the value of real work-time interaction—-including water cooler conversation and mingling—-even for remote workers. And that really hadn’t been available in the space. “We just wanted to reimagine what group communication and collaboration feels like,” Boyd says.

And they wanted to get it out the door fast.

Boyd and his co-founders started the company in February of 2013, and threw together an Adobe Flash-based prototype in three days. “Then we realized Flash is not the future,” Boyd says. “We don’t want to align ourselves with a dying technology.” Instead, they pivoted to using the newer WebRTC standard for Web-based communications. “It’s great because it’s open-source, and it’s really good for building this thing, but it’s so early it’s a little buggy,” he says. So Sqwiggle’s team of nine is constantly working to push out new versions and correct bugs. But, “every time we push out a release for Chrome it gets better and better.”

Right now, Sqwiggle is both a browser-based services and an app; Chrome users can log in through the site, and there’s a native app available for Mac users. The company is currently working on a Windows version of the app, and expects to release Sqwiggle across all browsers in the near future.

In August, the company raised a seed round of $1.1 million from investors including Atlas Venture, Innovation Works and Ludlow Ventures.

So far, feedback from users has been positive, Boyd says. People tend to get used to the constant photos pretty quickly, and one person even told the company that using the service might enable him to move away from the city he currently works in. Another said that seeing an acquaintance in the same company pop up on his screen “felt remarkably like passing someone in the hallway,” Boyd says. “That’s the interaction we want to capture.”

Trending on Xconomy

By posting a comment, you agree to our terms and conditions.

One response to “Sqwiggle’s Webcam Eye Gives Remote Workers a Virtual Office”

  1. Rocky says:

    Interesting….how does this differ from http://zoom.us?