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Virtual reality gaming pioneers Alex Schwartz and Cy Wise have started a new company called Absurd Joy to make remote working more joyful through an app they call Tangle. They have raised $5.5 million.
Hanging out together with your coworkers on Zoom (unless you’re playing poker) isn’t joyful. But Absurd Joy has created Tangle as a platform for remote collaboration. It’s meant to be playful, joyful, and fun, said Schwartz and Wise
They’re familiar with fun. Schwartz cofounded Owlchemy, the maker of the hilarious Job Simulator VR title, and Wise helped run it. Google bought Owlchemy in 2017. They eventually left, traveled the world, and started a game company just in time for the pandemic. To make remote working more fun, they started creating some tools to boost office morale. And it turned out to be so good that they pivoted their company to focus on the tools.
The Cambridge, Massachusetts-based company spells its name “absurd: joy,” which is a crime against our style guide so we call it Absury Joy. Unsatisfied with virtual office platforms currently available, the team decided to build their own from the ground up, and Tangle was born.
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When they started their remote studio, Schwartz and Wise wanted to return to a world where remote work, if done mindfully, can foster a really wonderful work-life balance while supporting human hearts in their natural environment. They didn’t want to be silent faces in boxes or chat in an impersonal Slack feed. They started working with the Unity game engine and created Tangle, mainly for their own team.
“Our new company was focused on this era of experimentation. And we wanted to kind of find the next big problem that we wanted to solve as a team,” Schwartz said. “We collected this band of experts who had run companies before and designers and programmers and we started working on a couple of prototypes. And immediately, we kind of looked at our tech solution for just getting together remotely.”
He added, “We were all remote. You would think that these tools would have gotten better and better and better. But it turned out you’re pretty much just a rectangular face within a black background. Like nothing had evolved since Skype. There were so many use cases it didn’t support.”
Tangle is optimized for creativity, natural serendipity, and those swivel-around moments that are so difficult to achieve in a virtual/remote setting while also focusing on user agency, privacy, and comfort. For instance, you can work all day in your connected remote video conference, but you can easily mark yourself as busy or away from the keyboard or locked in your office.
“We could just completely start from scratch and reimagine how people communicate remotely,” Wise said. “We thought, ‘Let’s make rooms with doors.’ They can shut the door. And this paradigm emerged. And immediately we told some friends and they’re like, I need that. And I need it yesterday. How much money can I throw at you right now to have this tool? And that was kind of our moment where we said,
Oh, maybe that’s actually our company.'”
Tangle uses a metaphor of an online platform that is divided into individual offices. You can jump into one office for a meeting and the owner of the office will host the meeting.
“We created Tangle for ourselves,” Schwartz said.
You can listen to the din of the whole group talking with each other in their meetings. You can turn that up if you want or turn it down so that you can think.
“You can say for the next five hours I’m going to be working in my room,” Schwartz said.
The animations are fluid and are designed to run at 60 frames per second, or as fast as a shooter game.
Someone else can interrupt you in your office, but when they click upon your closed-door icon, you hear a knocking sound. If you can be interrupted, then you answer the door and have an impromptu meeting. In that way, Tangle enables you to have unscheduled meetings — the kind that is necessary for teams to iterate and innovate, Wise said.
“What’s really fascinating about our situation is that a lot of these apps are made with the idea of the calendar in mind,” Wise said. “Like where are the slots that you have, where a meeting goes. But a lot of meetings don’t actually happen on a screen. They don’t fit in a calendar. And that’s one of the problems that we’ve seen with existing tools. We’re looking for those serendipitous moments where people can just come together naturally.”
You can also easily break off from a big meeting and have a side conversation with someone. If someone isn’t available, you can leave a note on their “door” for them to tend to the matter whenever they come back, Wise said.
Teams can share whiteboards with each other. They can also embed any website inside of Tangle (a Trello board, a Google doc, a Miro board) and crowd around it and collaborate together with your teammates (even edit those docs, not just see them). That’s been super helpful for both the team and early pilot customers, Schwartz said.
March Gaming led the round with participation from Dune Ventures, WXR Fund, Gaingels, David Helgason, and others. This round follows their pre-seed funding from Ed Fries at 1UP Ventures and WXR Fund. If you recognize some of those investors, they are indeed game venture investors. But Absurd Joy has pivoted from gaming into fun remote work.
Tangle is currently in closed beta and has been in use for the past eight months by over a dozen pilot customers including Bad Robot Games, Squanch Games, Lightforge Games, Skymap Games, and more. Anna Sweet, CEO of Bad Robot games, said in a statement that the VR background of the team and gaming helped the team think of ways to disrupt the way we work and create.
Companies can apply for access to the beta here. The goal is to launch Tangle for everyone by early next year. The company is selecting companies and teams for its closed beta now.
Schwartz previously cofounded, built, and ran Owlchemy Labs. Wise was the studio director. They made games like Job Simulator, Rick and Morty: VR, and Vacation Simulator. They sold the company to Google in 2017.
Schwartz plays an active role as an adviser to various game events and the game and VR communities. Wise spent 15 years in the game business and she’s an expert in VR design, human-centric play, and building and maintaining a culture within organizations and communities. They have 10 people on their team.
Learning from VR and games
Schwartz said they learned from gaming and VR.
“Both VR and remote work are nascent tech spaces,” Schwartz said. “VR was a paradigm shift in technology and when we approached it at Owlchemy, our lesson was that we needed to design from the ground up specifically for the medium. Remote work is in a similar spot where we’re currently leaning heavily on tools not built natively for this process — instead, we’re leveraging software built solely for meetings, which is one small part of work culture. Because we’re used to this for VR, we applied the same mindset and set out to design the next generation of software specifically catered for remote work.”
He added, “We also learned a ton about the value of spatial concepts in VR, so we integrated a number of spatial elements in Tangle. Having a persistent world where rooms are anchored to various spots, you can really get a sense of space that feels lively and co-created. Coming into Tangle in the morning means you can see documents, notes, images pasted on the wall, and it really feels like a team’s home. Even the audio is spatial, which helps both to delineate conversations, and give a great coffee shop vibe when you and your team are having multiple conversations around the space.”
On top of that, he said the team built a new way of thinking about remote work and bringing people together into a space.
“Just like VR it really has to be experienced to fully understand how helpful and natural Tangle feels in action,” he said.
You can also use your game-like avatar to afford you more privacy, in case you don’t want to be on video.
“We’re super excited about the potential for our avatar system to bring more privacy, less fatigue, and also the nuance of non-verbal communication to remote communication apps without needing your camera on,” Schwartz said. “It’s a feature directly inspired from our VR roots (especially as we add tracked avatars) and we’re very very excited about this space.”
The team made it game-like in a variety of ways. Tangle gives teams a persistent space where they can interact and leave their mark on the space, so it has a very game-feel vibe to it.
The sticky notes, rooms, drawings, and memes stick around in your Tangle and give it a real sense of space, and the overall vibe of the app is fun, Schwartz said.
“It’s built using a game engine after all (and built by game developers) so we’re building it in a playful, juicy, fluid way,” Schwartz said. “We think collaboration tools should be fun and the design of your tools can actually evoke more creativity.”
As for the money part, Tangle will be a paid subscription product when it launches early next year, with an eye toward a free tier for teams who want to experiment with Tangle and see if it’s right for them.
“We aren’t charging money at the moment since the product is still in beta and we’re delighted that our early teams are able to give us valuable feedback and bug reports,” Schwartz said.
[Updated 10:34 p.m. on 8/25/21: Updated details on Owlchemy founding]
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