Tribe augments video chat with speech recognition subtitles and suggested links

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Tribe’s voice recognition video chat technology could make Snapchat and Facebook Messenger look outdated. That tech also attracted a $3 million seed round led by prestigious VC Sequoia, its first seed investment of the year.

Today, Tribe’s one-touch video walkie-talkie app launches a huge Version 2 update on iOS and Android powered by access to some unreleased Google voice APIs. You still hold down on a friend or group’s tile to send them a short, asynchronous video message, but now Tribe automatically adds subtitles to your video chats. And if it recognizes you’ve said a “Magic Word,” Tribe will offer a helpful related link.

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Tap a tile to record and send a video message to a friend (left). Tribe’s Magic Words feature recognizes what you say and turns it into buttons that link to directions, calendars, social media, Spotify, Amazon and more

Say “coffee” and Tribe offers a button to send a calendar request overlaid on your video chat. Say a celebrity’s name and it will link to their social media accounts. Products link to Amazon, locations link to maps and songs playing in the background link to Spotify.

Cyril Paglino, CEO and founder of Tribe, calls this “augmented messaging.” He built the features because, he says, “I want Tribe to be the most convenient app for me and my friends.”

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Now the question is whether these features are enough to pull people away from the standard messaging apps they use, like iMessage, Facebook Messenger and Snapchat. Those all do video, but Tribe wants to make the format the default way people communicate, with text just for when you have to be quiet or share details people need to copy.

Tribe already has 500,000 downloads since its founding in August 2015, and now has 40,000 daily users. It built that community on a meager $500,000 seed round from Ludlow Ventures raised last November. But with the new cash secured in May from Sequoia, plus Ludlow, Partech Ventures and Kima Ventures, Tribe is ready to challenge the world’s most powerful chat apps. And if it doesn’t work out, I’m sure one of the tech giants would be happy to scoop up this product team.

Tribe, don’t text

“Professional breakdancer” isn’t on the résumé of most startup founders, but that was actually how Paglino got the idea for Tribe. While signed with Red Bull’s dance team, he traveled across Europe making friends. But trying to keep up with them all over text messengers like WhatsApp was too slow. You can’t type as fast as you can think on mobile. But you can talk.

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Tribe founder and CEO Cyril Paglino tells me about the future of augmented messaging from the balcony of his hacker house

After building and selling a startup called Wizee in his home of France, Paglino realized he could create an app to solve his typing problem. With Tribe, instead of mashing out long text messages, you simply hold down on the screen, record a video message and it’s instantly sent to friends. Paglino teamed up with some buddies, rented a hacker house in San Francisco’s secluded Dolores Heights for them to live and work from and pushed out the MVP of their app in December.

tribe-iphone-6-screenshot-5Tribe is still video first, but it’s also adding a text option just in case you need to send someone something they’ll want to copy and paste, like a phone number or address. Tribe is also branching out from just being for personal contacts to allow Telegram-style public rooms. For now you’ll have to watch every video left in the room, in order, but the startup is building feedback and ranking features to algorithmically show you the best ones first.

But the big new feature, Magic Words, could be the key to monetizing messaging without annoying its users. Affiliate links to Amazon are one obvious way Tribe could make money. There are also opportunities for tie-ins with other apps, like pushing people to certain ride-sharing services. Paglino imagines that one day you might use Tribe to get per-minute legal advice or telemedicine from a doctor.

The first step is mass traction, though, which could be difficult when everyone’s social graphs are already established on other apps. Tribe does let you pull in your Facebook friends, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Facebook cut off access for competing with it, which it’s done to messaging apps in the past. Video might be more vivid and less taxing on your thumbs, but not everything needs a face behind it, and utilitarian chat platforms could feel easier than Tribe.

The Tribe team in their San Francisco live/work hacker house

The Tribe team in their San Francisco live/work hacker house

What Tribe is betting on is that the shift to video will upend these chat apps like iMessage, Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp that are essentially desktop IRC programs ported to mobile. And with Snapchat’s increased focus on broadcasting of Stories instead of private messaging, and the failure of Taptalk, there’s a huge open space.

Tribe and Sequoia think that gap can be filled with a video walkie-talkie that doesn’t just let you talk instead of type, but actually understands what you’re saying.

Tribe 2.0 already has one loyal user: Paglino’s mom, who’s deaf. Thanks to the subtitles, she can still see the face of her son and video chat with him even though he’s far away in Silicon Valley, chasing his dream.