DabKick Spices Up Mobile Chat with Video, Photos, and Now Music

5/2/13Follow @wroush

Do mobile-device owners really want to share photos, videos, and other media with their friends in real time? Would you have more fun browsing your photo album or watching the latest viral video on YouTube if you knew your friends were looking at the same stuff on their phones at the same time?

Every so often, a company comes along arguing that the answer to these questions is yes. Their premise is that our existing ways of connecting—phone calls, FaceTime and Skype calls, text-messaging, e-mail, Facebook, and all the rest—lack a certain richness, and that given the right software, smartphone owners would jump at the chance to consume media together.

The thing is, the idea has never caught on, even though researchers have been playing with the concept for the better part of a decade. One company I’ve followed, called Thrutu, came out with a pretty cool app for Android, iOS, and BlackBerry phones that lets people share photos during a phone call back in 2011. It never really took off. Samsung has put a function called Group Play into its Galaxy phones that lets users share music, photos, and games if they’re within Wi-Fi range of each other, but as CNET has observed, few consumers even know the feature exists.

Balaji Krishnan thinks there’s an easy explanation for the lack of interest so far: it’s a chicken-and-egg problem. “The reason we haven’t seen people wanting this product is because they haven’t seen products like this,” he says. “Once they start experiencing it, they will understand how easy it is to consume media together.”

Krishnan is the creator of DabKick, an app for iPhones that’s got voice-over-Internet technology under the hood but skips the phone call and goes straight to the media sharing. If you’ve got DabKick on your phone, you can invite any other smartphone owner to join a communication session in real time and see photos you’ve selected from your camera roll or watch the same YouTube video you’re watching.

Selecting songs to share on DabKick's new music home screen.

Selecting songs to share on DabKick's new music home screen.

They can also chat with you via text messages or walkie-talkie-style voice messages. In an update released today, Krishnan added yet another feature: music sharing, which lets friends listen simultaneously to free music from YouTube or the playlists on their phones. If the invited party doesn’t have the DabKick app, that’s okay—the whole thing works via a mobile Web browser as well.

Krishnan says the original idea behind DabKick was to help friends and family members recreate in-person social experiences such as flipping through a photo album or watching TV together.

“When you meet with a friend in person, you walk into their living room and you watch TV together and talk together,” says Krishnan. “When you are away from each other, you might try to to get a similar experience by sending a YouTube link via chat, and your friend might send back an LOL. You’re trying to have the same experience you had in person, but via multiple protocols—which is a broken experience, in our mind.”

In DabKick, the experience is more unified. Users can initiate a session, share photos and video, and talk smack through text and voice messages, all without leaving the app.

Krishnan says that makes the experience more casual than firing up three or four separate applications to do the same things—and more temporary, since all of the shared photos and other media disappear from the recipient’s phone when the session ends.

“There’s a new category evolving with things like Snapchat—temporary sharing, where you share something and then it’s gone,” Krishnan says. That’s a better fit with the way people interact in person, he says. And it also lends itself to virtual dating—one of the use cases Krishnan sees for DabKick as well. (The main users of the app so far are the under-25 crowd, he says.)

Krishnan is a veteran Silicon Valley software engineer who’s done database and operating-system development work at Sun, Oracle, and Hewlett-Packard. His previous startup, Snapstick, offered screen-sharing software that let mobile device owners “snap” videos and other media from their phones to their big-screen TVs. DabKick is a two-man startup based in Redwood City, CA, with development help from engineers in India; it’s been operating so far on a seed investment from Gree, the Japan-based mobile social network and mobile game maker.

The app is free for now, but if it catches on, Krishnan believes the startup will have the opportunity to charge for virtual goods such as stickers that users can exchange during chats, or to create a “freemium” price structure where users need to pay a subscription fee after sharing a set number of free videos.

Down the line, Krishnan hopes to open up Dabkick’s technology to other companies. “Imagine if Shutterfly put DabKick inside their app, so that users could now share Shutterfly photos inside their app and decide what to print,” he says. “Then it would be a Twilio model, where we could charge by usage.” (Twilio is a San Francisco startup that provides voice infrastructure services to other Internet companies.)

It’s clear that people love to share media; that’s why so much of the traffic on social media services like Twitter and Facebook consists of links to videos and photos. The big question is whether they really want to do it synchronously. DabKick is betting that once people see its app in action, they’ll understand what they’ve been missing all these years. Says Krishnan: “People have seen bits and pieces of this in other products, but when you bring them together it creates a whole different experience.”

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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