Read the room — virtually: Seattle startup lands $10M to analyze your face and voice on video calls

From left: Rob Williams, David Shim, and Elliott Waldron. (Read Photos)

David Shim, Elliott Waldron, and Rob Williams helped build location analytics startup Placed, which was acquired by Snap for more than $200 million in 2017.

Now the band is getting back together — this time for an “exponentially bigger opportunity than Placed,” Shim told Mekhato this week.

Their new company is Read, which just announced a $10 million seed round for its software that measures engagement and sentiment of participants on video meetings.

The startup is aiming to ride tailwinds driven by the pandemic that caused massive adoption of video conferencing tools such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams.

Read’s software uses AI, computer vision, and natural language processing tech to analyze voice and facial movements. The data shows up in a real-time dashboard, accessible to anyone on a call.

The idea is to give people feedback on how their audience is emotionally responding, whether it’s a sales pitch or a weekly all-hands meeting — like a FitBit that tracks steps, but for meetings instead. Read aims to answer questions like: Are people engaged? Are they frustrated? Are they feeling productive?

“The goal here is to really make virtual meetings more real and more physical,” said Shim, who became CEO of Foursquare after the company acquired Placed from Snap in 2019.

Companies such as Zoom and Microsoft have seen huge growth of their video conferencing applications during the pandemic with the shift to remote work. The video conferencing market is expected to grow from $9.2 billion this year to $22.5 billion in 2026.

“You’re seeing a market that was 20 to 30 million users, go to half a billion in less than 18 months,” Shim noted. “That’s faster than smartphones and the adoption of Android and iOS. And it’s not just for five minutes or 10 minutes. We’re talking multiple hours throughout the day.”

Even as some workers return to the office, Shim said Read will become more appealing.

“There’s going to be a disconnect where the people that are remote are going to feel not part of the conversation,” he said. “In that aspect, you need to make it easier to read the room. If you’re not sitting in that conference room, you can’t pick up all the people’s emotions, their sentiment. So these types of tools will go a long way in terms of making that conversation more equal and equitable.”

Read says privacy is top of mind. The software shows up as a meeting participant, and people can opt-out at any time. The data is collected on aggregate and not broken out on an individual basis, with the exception of a “talk time” metric that shows the percentage of time each person spends talking. And after 24 hours, Read deletes the raw video and audio data.

“It’s not a policing tool,” Shim said.

Microsoft faced privacy-related backlash last year for its “Productivity Score” that gave companies data to understand how workers use and adopt different forms of technology. Microsoft responded by removing the ability for companies to see data about individual users.

Read’s software also may raise questions about bias in facial or speech recognition technology. The startup said it built its training datasets that represent six continents and various ethnic and cultural backgrounds.

“It all starts with the training datasets and being vigilant to make sure that the models lack any bias,” said Waldron. “It’s one of the most important things that we think about when we’re building this tech.”

Read is initially available as a free service on Zoom. The company eventually plans to expand to other video conferencing platforms, and make money by charging companies that use the software more heavily.

And the vision for Read goes beyond just video calls — it sees the software being used in high-tech smart glasses, for example.

“We’re going after interactions,” Shim said. “That is a big market to go after, because anywhere interactions occur, we can be.”

Read is among a crop of startups aiming to improve virtual meetings and workplace communication in a new era of hybrid work. Another Seattle startup, Voodle, raised $6 million in December for its TikTok-like app meant to replace long video calls or text-based notes with bite-sized selfie-oriented video clips.

Shim co-founded Placed in 2011. Waldron joined the company in 2012, and Williams in 2015. Waldron is now vice president of data science at Read; Williams is vice president of engineering.

Read has less than 20 employees and expects to double headcount with the new funding.

Madrona Venture Group led the seed round, which included participation from PSL Ventures and various angel investors such as former Placed board member David Joerg; former Snap exec Imran Khan; AI2 CEO Oren Etzioni; Qumulo CEO Bill Richter; Wunderman CEO Shane Atchison; Divvy founder Brian Ma; and Snap execs Peter Sellis and Nima Khajehnouri.

“In a digital first world, Read is set to be that intelligent application that ushers in video conferencing 2.0,” Madrona managing director Matt McIlwain, who just joined the board, said in a statement.

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