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Spin iOS app brings human element to video chat, collaboration

A new mobile app out on iPhones and iPads brings a colorful, animation-heavy design aesthetic to digital communication, all in an effort to make screen-to-screen interactions more "human."


Apple may have been a pioneer in playing up the humanizing aspects of video chatting, using heartstring-tugging ads to show how communicating through a screen with its FaceTime app could be a magical experience. But Net Power & Light (NPL), the company behind a new video platform, aims to take that very idea and amplify it, from both a design and functionality standpoint.

Spin, which launched Tuesday on iOS, is the company's solution for a more fun, colorful, and potentially immersive communication experience. The goal is to be more functional than FaceTime, Skype, and Google Hangouts and less selectively business-oriented than enterprise offerings like FuzeBox and WebEx.

And by using some of the highest quality mobile audio and video transmissions, NPL wants its app to be a go-to space for all walks of life: musicians looking to play together in real-time, families watching sporting events while separated by thousands of miles, companies aiming to reinvigorate their teleconferencing methods.

NPL last year launched the iPad apps TogetherTalks, a way for groups to watch and discuss TED Talks, and TogetherLearn, a collaborative education app. Both used the Spin platform as a log-in and video chatting mechanism, and served as a way of showcasing the tool's ability to bring effective video collaboration to different sectors.

Now Spin, with its exclusive app, is still the overarching platform between those two services, while becoming an entirely new service to be used in any way users see fit.

"We named it Spin from the idea of quantum entanglement," CEO and co-founder Tara Lemmey said in an interview, referencing the quantum physics phenomenon wherein a measurement of an aspect of an "entangled" particle, such as spin (or in other words angular momentum), correlates to its pair even if both are separated by large distances. "Basically people can do the same thing no matter where they are," she added of the basic concept.

Despite the high-level physics reference tied to its name, Spin is a remarkably easy app to use. Open it up on an iPhone or iPad and you're immediately greeted with a square box showing your face transmitting from the front-facing camera. Swiping up lets you invite others or create in-app events, such as business meetings or scheduled times to catch up with friends or family; swiping down lets you bring in media like your iPhone camera roll, YouTube videos, or Facebook photos.


Once the photo or video is center stage in the live chat, all participants can interact in real-time with the media. You can overlay finger doodles in an assortment of colors or interact wordlessly through provided animations that range from throwing a tomato onscreen to pulling up a cheering crowd in MST3K fashion.

Underlying the entire experience is NPL's proprietary video and audio technology. Using wideband audio at 44kHz -- way up from the standard 16kHz, the audio quality is close to matching that of a recording studio, claims the company.

Spin also renders animations the related on-screen movements at up to 60 frames per second, though for clarification the video transmission itself is not at 60 fps. However, more impressive, the company claims, is that up to 10 people at the same time can jump into a live chat without a loss of quality.

As for how the company "exceeds all quality benchmarks in audio, video, image, and interactivity," Lemmey is tight-lipped. She did say it took NPL roughly three years to get it right, and the company has filed more than 80 patents to protect its technology.

Spin has already proved a successful platform with education and sports. Through a specially designed app called TogetherJustice that branched off of its collaborative learning initiative, NPL brought together 500 students from China, Brazil, India, and Japan for a semester of Harvard professor Michael Sandel's famous political philosophy course. And in another pilot program, called Spin Stadium, the app was used to remotely bring together fans of US soccer team D.C. United.

But with Spin opening to the public, it's now time to see whether the video platform can find a home in the mainstream amid the big players whose less-concentrated efforts have allowed them to become synonymous with their respective strengths. After all, Skype is a verb for video chatting, as is FaceTime with mobile video calling.

So whether "Spin me" becomes a common phrase among tech-savvy communicators relies wholly on its ability to succeed at offering a "more human" experience.

Update at 10:30 a.m. PT: Clarified Spin's video animations, not actual transmission, achieve 60 frames per second. Clarified that audio transmissions are not using ultra-wideband, but instead are using standard wideband at 44kHz instead of 16KHz.