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Phone-crazed audiences and fed-up musicians? Yondr is on the case

The startup has developed a novel way to help audiences give musicians their undivided attention: a locking smartphone case that must be used while at a show.

Yondr's case entraps a smartphone so attendees of events such as live music concerts can't compulsively text, check apps or snap photos. Yondr

The two bouncers at the Stork Club, a dive bar in Oakland, Calif., stopped me in front of a bin of smartphone cases. That night's show was a phone-free affair, they told me. I had to place my iPhone 5S in one of the sleeves, which would lock as soon as I entered the club's phone-free zone and stay locked until I left.

Made by spanking-new startup Yondr, the cases operate on the fundamental premise that smartphones can be "a distraction and a crutch" that distance us from our immediate surroundings. Yondr's mission, according to its website, is "to show people how powerful a moment can be when we aren't focused on documenting or broadcasting it."

Yondr is among the first companies to cater to the "unplugging" movement. If you haven't already been asked to stow away your gadgets, you soon could be.

A cafe in Vermont made headlines in September when it said sales jumped after it banned laptops and cut the cord on public Wi-Fi. The Motion Picture Association of American, along with movie theater owners, announced Thursday a "zero tolerance" policy for any "recording device being used while movies are shown." And famed guitarist Peter Frampton hit the news in August after grabbing a fan's phone and throwing it away. "It's very distracting for not only me, but for the people behind the people taking photos," Frampton told USA Today when asked about the incident.

Clearly, there's a time and a place for technology, and San Francisco-based Yondr intends to help people know when and where that is.

"Yondr is not antitechnology. It's about establishing these places that allow people to achieve a balance," said Yondr founder and CEO Graham Dugoni. "I have people calling me from Germany telling me that they've been trying to do phone-free shows for years."

Dugoni expects interest to pick up as even more concert-goers and venue owners get used to the idea. Yondr currently leases its gear to places wanting to set up phone-free zones, but it plans to start selling kits instead. The kits will let venues control the service themselves.

Updating the 'social protocol'

While Yondr's primary targets are music shows and other live events, other businesses in the unplugging movement focus on the broader issues of our digital obsessions.

Digital Detox, based in Oakland, hosts phone-free get-togethers at conferences and festivals. Its most prominent event, though, is a multiday adult summer camp called Camp Grounded. The camp is hosted in the redwoods of Navarro, Calif., where attendees pay $350 to go off the grid.

That kind of retreat serves those who believe nonstop digital connectivity leads to personal isolation. Put another way, technology allows us to "hide from each other, even as we are tethered to each other." That's according to MIT professor Sherry Turkle's book "Alone Together," which adds, "We'd rather text than talk."

Even some of tech's elite acknowledge the need to unplug from time to time. "If you're with another person and it's important that you be with that person, then [it's] devices down or off or on mute or whatever so it's not pulled out every three seconds," venture capitalist Marc Andreessen said in an interview with CNET. " will all just be part of the social protocol."

But unplugging could eventually become more than simply a social nicety for concertgoers, if some musicians have their way. The indie rock trio the Yeah Yeah Yeahs posted a directive to show-goers in April to "put that sh*t away," meaning their smartphones. A month later, the British alternative group Savages did the same, in a more polite fashion, with a sign that read, "Our goal is to discover better ways of living and experience music. Let's make this evening special. Turn off your phones."

It will definitely take some getting used to, as I learned in the brief time I used Yondr's phone-locking cases. At the Stork Club, I couldn't stop holding my phone, toying with the flap covering the upper fourth of the screen -- and everyone else at the table seemed to be having the same problem.

I watched as some people got up and walked over to the unlocking station. The cases are light enough so that you can feel the buzz of a text or a call through the case, making it difficult not to wonder which of the dozens of apps installed on your device is trying to grab your attention.

I finally put my Yondr-encased phone in my pocket. Throughout the night, I felt it vibrating, even when it wasn't.