Video conferencing has existed since the early 20th century and has steadily grown in popularity, evolving with technology advances and increasing globalization. In the wake of COVID-19 and social-distancing guidelines, video calls are now an essential communication channel, not just for business meetings and the occasional calls with family on holidays, but for everyday interactions too.
And that’s where Together comes in. The subscription-based video calling app is specifically designed for children to play games and read stories with family members. Powered by Twilio’s Programmable Video API, Together has seen its downloads increase 50x since March 2020, when coronavirus lockdowns started.
When he started building Together, software engineer Enrique Rodriguez was already a successful app creator—founding his own computer software company, Bitwise, in 2015, and releasing two utility and productivity apps. “The apps I had created were working well, generating revenue, and so I felt like I needed to work on something I really cared about and had meaning to me,” Rodriguez says.
As a father of two based in Barcelona, Rodriguez found it challenging to keep his three-year-old daughter in touch with her grandparents in Berlin and Mexico. “I noticed that she would get distracted and not participate, or I had to chase her down to get her in front of the video, so I wondered, ‘How can I make this interaction better to ensure my parents know my daughters as they grow up?’”
After realizing that playtime helped keep his daughters’ attention, Rodriguez decided that making video chats more interactive would be more engaging for children. “Let’s get games and books integrated into a video experience so as they play their personality comes out, rather than forcing them,” Rodriguez recalls thinking.
Inside the Together app, the two participants at either end of the call can play age-appropriate games, and read books together and see the other person’s progress. The interactive activities allow for more natural engagement, especially from children, and more meaningful time spent together.
Even for an experienced software engineer like Rodriguez, video conferencing was new territory for him. “When I started prototyping, I built the initial WebRTC infrastructure. It proved to be challenging with all the little details to take care of, so I did a search, found Twilio, and in five minutes I had a video call going—versus three weeks or more to do it on my own with WebRTC,” Rodriguez says.
Using the Twilio customer engagement platform has allowed Rodriguez to expand his vision for what’s possible with Together. He can also plan ahead for easily adding more channels like chat.
“I’m not having to worry about scalability, servers, configuring instances. I can just focus on the experience of games and interactions, rather than the infrastructure. That’s the power of a platform as a service like Twilio,” he says.
Eager to deepen the connections within his own family, Rodriguez was personally invested in seeing how his idea would play out between loved ones and prototyped the first version with his own family. What he witnessed was a magical moment that he instantly recognized every parent would dream of having for themselves. Says Rodriguez: “Seeing my dad read a book to my daughters, I knew there is something here for sure.”
The Together app launched on the App Store in February 2019 and since then has unexpectedly become an essential app of sorts for tens of thousands. “It's been really smooth sailing in terms of integration. And [without Twilio] it would've taken me way longer to have a product that is reliable, that works, and so that's been great.”
I’m not having to worry about scalability, servers, configuring instances. I can just focus on the experience of games and interactions, rather than the infrastructure. That’s the power of a platform as a service like Twilio.
During the pandemic, many parents like Rodriguez depend on screens. “Parents can feel guilt when just handing an iPad to their kid, but with Together, it’s positive screen time because it’s interactive.” In addition to the games, storybooks, and activities already available, Together also allows users to scan books into the app to read on video while the other viewers can follow along, word-by-word, on the page.
As the coronavirus continues, Together is not only facilitating family connection but also helping parents who would otherwise see their relatives regularly to assist with childcare. In a Wall Street Journal story about video conferencing amid the lockdowns, “Grandparents to the Rescue,” [paywalled] writer Julie Jargon shares:
“I tried this app with my 5-year-old, who has been whining from boredom. My parents had tried reading to him over FaceTime, but it didn’t engage him much. When they played games on Together, though, it kept him busy for 45 minutes, which felt like a blissful eternity. I was able to process the groceries that had just arrived, put in a load of laundry as well as get some work done.”
In March 2020 alone, Together clocked 1.6 million minutes of video chat, with an average call duration of 29 minutes. From watching that first magical interaction between his own daughter and father, Rodriguez’s instincts about how to make video calls more engaging for kids are proving to be overwhelmingly true for all families. The long call times not only mean kids are getting more quality time with family but it also provides a welcomed break for some parents.
Together is also quickly becoming a space for people of all generations, not just kids, to connect to each other in more meaningful ways, as Rodgriguez describes, “We’re now receiving requests from senior care facilities to add games for their residents to play among each other.”
As for the app’s capabilities, in addition to possibly adding Twilio messaging, chat, and video recording capabilities, he continues to find inspiration from his own life. “Just yesterday, my daughters and I were having a virtual dinner with my dad and one of them started dancing, but I had to point the iPad toward her—there needs to be a way to bring hardware into this app.”
Looking ahead, Rodriguez is planning to release an Android version of Together and offer the app in additional languages.
For Rodriguez, what’s most rewarding about building Together is hearing from those also experiencing joy from using the app. “There have been a few user emails that have been really great to receive. For example, someone wrote to me, ‘I haven't seen my children or my grandchildren in a month, and now it’s as if I am there playing with them.’ ”