June 17, 2024
Yolk is a social app where users swap custom live stickers -- no text allowed

With so much fresh competition in social apps right now — plus the usual set of social media platforms and messaging giants sucking up attention — it might feel like there’s precious little room to innovate in this slice of the consumer market. But the creators of a new iOS app called Yolk are joining the fray, spying an opportunity to hook into recent developments in on-device AI and attract a younger demographic.

In this playful arena, no text can be typed. Users have to message each other visually, sending custom live stickers the AI tools enable them to make. The goal: Channel kids’ energy to be creative about how they socialize by giving them low friction tools to express their individuality. Yolk also throws in some hard limits on how you can communicate to get the fun flowing.

The Yolk app — currently only available on iPhone via Apple’s App Store — leans into the “social weirdness” of identity-building, using the latest consumer tech to proffer a camera’s eye view of the user’s world. Yolk says it has three AI models running on-device to power its point-to-capture stickerfying tool. More specifically, it’s using Apple’s Vision APIs, and on-device machine learning, to power object detection and foreground/background segmentation. It also says it’s running an open-sourced “face parsing” model to be able to recognize different landmarks on a face, such as eyes, ears, nose and so on.

Let me repeat: Yolk users can’t send text messages to each other. Instead whatever they point their iPhone cameras at  — their own face, hands, today’s lunch, other fun and random stuff around them — gets turned into a segmented sticker which they can share with contacts as a standalone message. The app also supports visual editing, so users can combine multiple bits of stuff they rip out of their world with other visuals it makes available (still photos and emoji are allowed), to create a more sophisticated message. There’s still no text-sharing though. Users are swapping custom collages of visuals or stickerfied clips.

Yolk sharing combos might superimpose a reaction selfie which loops a grimace atop a shot of today’s lunch, for instance, or have a rude hand gesture bop about in front of a still from a hated TV show. The app is obviously more about sending feels and having fun than getting into nuanced discussions or sustained and serious conversations. Other messaging apps are available for that.

The app includes a feed where posts are shared with all the user’s contacts. Content here can include standard photos but the app encourages users to augment snaps by adding an animated reaction selfie/sticker on top. (Front and back cameras are available for reactions and stickerizing.) Yolk also has a direct messaging channel where users can share one-to-one — but, still, there’s no keyboard! — so this is also messaging via expression (selfies), body lingo (hands), or other custom stickers.

Profile pages on Yolk are envisaged as spaces for exhibiting expression and identity. Here users are encouraged to curate a collection of animated selfies and other expressive gestures. They can use this personal space to show off their fave custom stickers of cherished objects, people, vibes, ideas, or whatever, so visitors get a feel for who they are.

The overall effect is a kind of fidget-y digital scrapbook — one where the scraps jiggle endlessly, imbued with a crude simulacrum of life as their captured motion loops around like an animated GIF.

Yolk’s aesthetic is raw, immediate and, intentionally, a bit janky or retro. The vibe is part edgy, part cartoony — and the team may well be borrowing from the ideas department that Zenly founders have been pushing lately, via their new project, Amo, and their first app, ID. Yolk’s app can, similarly, be filed under “messthetic“.)

Users opting to flirt with Yolk’s redefined comms currency and play around at this AI-enabled social cutting edge, might be said to be inching, slightly and glitchily, into the brave and foolish era of spacial computing. Except no eye-wateringly expensive eye goggles are necessary here. An iPhone and a bit of imagination is all it takes to participate in this small-screen game of blending (and remixing) the real and the digital in fun and interesting (but probably mostly silly) ways.

(Well, not quite all: You do also need to be prepared to invite a bunch of your friends to join you on the adventure as the app deploys an old-school growth-hacking tactic during the onboarding flow which demands a certain number of invites are sent out before you’re let in. Albeit, that’s fair enough; there’s not a lot of point in using this sort of app unless you have others to play with.)

While iPhone users have been able to mine their own photos for custom (static) stickers with just the mere press of a finger since iOS 16, when Apple introduced the image cut-out tech to its mobile platform, this native creation flow would be a pretty laborious way to chat if you’re only swapping stickers. Yolk removes the friction by serving up a real-time view of target content as the user points their iPhone lens to stickerfy their world.

The cherry it pops on top of this real-time sticker gun is the ability to capture expressive motion, bringing stickerfied selfies and hand gestures alive. The effect is all the more retro as a result. This bit of happenstance was actually a (rare?) case of a bug that became a feature, according co-founder Piet Walraven.

A bug that became a feature

In a video interview with TechCrunch, Walraven explained that the trio of face-pulling founders — Meiwin Fu and Zihui Chen are the other two — got bored with life at Google, after the 2016 acquihire of their prior startup, a Slack-style teams comms app called Pie. They wanted to be more playful and childish than the Big Tech straightjacket allowed, as Walraven tells it, opting to become Xooglers and head back into the startup game.

After a few false starts as they were working on restaurant reviewing apps for Google Maps, they got a feel for the potential of the AI-powered sticker creation features introduced in iOS 16 and decided they needed to take the plunge and launch a full-blown consumer social app.

“We were just playing about with technology — in terms of what can we do with segmentation and parsing on-device AI, camera tech. And then we bumped into this bug where it’s like, great, one second video and then it started looping,” he explains, saying the app arose out of this exploration. The founders also asked themselves, “what are technologies that we can apply to build a social app — as opposed to here’s AI, make it into a utility”.

After stumbling on one-second looping selfies, Walraven says they decided to flip the camera — and let users “communicate through items that you see”. And this sticker gun (for want of a better term) became their chosen sharing format.

“We see early testers adding collections — somebody takes a picture of their lamp in their house and then everybody’s taking pictures of their lamps and their stuff,” he says. “Or there’s a portrait that someone takes a picture of. Then everybody’s impersonating the person in the portrait. Or you’re having coffee and then just temporarily posting coffees, like little live stickers of coffees.”

Essentially, he’s describing gamification of social connection, akin to Snap streaks  or, to a broader degree, TikTok challenges. But in Yolk’s case the messaging format is custom meme-making or copycatting for the lolz. And the point of the app is squarely fixed on forging friendship bonds by swapping feelings.

The team’s overarching premise is that mainstream social media has become boring, creating an appetite for something more silly and fun. “Old social media has turned into TV,” Yolk writes in a pitchdeck, claiming it’s part of “Social 2.0; a new wave of playful & liberating social experiences powered by AI”, and stressing: “We build for intimacy. Not attention.”

“Most of the apps — AI consumer apps — are very utilitarian,” Walraven adds. “We’re like, what can we build a platform with? So we started playing with this technology.”

Initially they also included the ability to send text in Yolk. But as they iterated and looked for creative limits to dial up a distinctive social experience they landed on stripping out word-based messaging entirely. This makes the app a pretty bold gambit in a fiercely competitive and attention-hungry field. But the founders hope the “no words” rule will help Yolk stand out by freeing users to be more playful about what they share.

“Liberating” is the word Walraven reaches for. (Plus, as he jokes, there are no language localization costs.) “I think it’s just much more interesting as an experience that’s constrained,” he says of removing texting from the app. “We created a serious constraint but then we realised your face has 43 muscles. And there’s over 10,000 expressions that you can make with your face.”

“Constraint is related to making something more like a toy as well,” he adds. “There’s these very interesting emerging use cases because we removed the words — so you get these “ransom note” type of conversations with people that really want to say something that take a picture. It just makes it much more interesting.”

In fact, Walraven’s pitch to TechCrunch itself was rather ransom-note-ish, consisting of a string of custom Yolk stickers aiming to catch our eye. Although some of these stickers contained words he’d scribbled on paper or typed on another screen and then captured and turned into customized Yolk visuals. So the pitch wasn’t entirely a word-free zone. We suspect Yolk’s users will find similarly creative ways to convey themselves, with or without words, regardless of the lack of an in-app keyboard.

Remixing social trends

There is something literally retro about Yolk, too — I can remember covering a reaction selfie messaging app more than a full decade ago, for instance. So there are old ideas being rehashed here. But consumer apps, like trends, do tend to go in cycles. The difference is now there’s more powerful mobile hardware and software to shake things up. Plus, as investors love to remind us, timing can make all the difference.

Walraven argues the time is right for an AI-fuelled sticker gun to make waves in social right now exactly because the tech has just gotten good enough to pull this trick off without it being too slow and frustrating. “iOS 17 is the first time that this really works well,” he argues. “On-device segmentation, parsing and facial recognition is getting fast enough and good enough to real-time recognize silhouettes and items and objects.”

“The interesting part is the AI enables you — as you point the camera at your face — to real-time see what you’re capturing,” he emphasizes. “This is how consumer works. It’s always tiny nuance… It’s these tiny little things that can make a difference.”

Here he points back to the “tap and hold” recording button that made the short-video sharing app Vine exciting and sticky when it launched over a decade ago. It’s such seemingly small details that can be key to designing disruptive consumer app interfaces that really excite users, he suggests.

“We created a new format out of [one second live stickers]. And it’s just incredibly easy to share — like an animated GIF you can post it anywhere. And then combined with that constraint of ‘no you can’t type’ you sort of start looking at the world in a very different way,” he continues. “You sort of become like this actor — it’s creativity boosting. And that’s what we see with users… They’re doing such weird things, which we really enjoy seeing.”

Another socially playful design aspect Walraven highlights is the ability of Yolk users to “throw stuff on each others’ profiles”.

“There’s sort of a fidget spinner on the profile that you can spin. But I can also just go to your profile and leave stuff there,” he explains. “People just leave weird shit,” he adds, describing how early users have been minting their own memes by, for example, stickerfying stills from Mr Beast’s YouTube videos by pointing their phone at his content playing on another screen in order to capture and share a particular expression. So, basically, build the right social tools for kids and the memes will come, right?

Who is the Yolk app for? Clearly oldies can turn away now. This social sticker-fest is squarely — and obviously — targeting teens and twentysomethings.

Walraven also affirms Yolk sits in a more casual camp of social apps, like Locket and BeReal, that seek to eschew the hyper-filtered and polished feeds of a social juggernaut like Instagram. The grungy look and feel of Yolk is a clear signal this is about flipping mainstream social rules. Or sharing and celebrating the “mundane” opposite of pretentious ‘gram posts. The AI sticker gun is the app gently nudging users to just post anything. So the influencer set will find slim pickings here.

“It’s mostly going to be teenagers and people in their early 20s that want to interact in a different way,” Walraven confirms, adding: “The moment they have a LinkedIn account, they’re probably not for us.”

Walraven recounts how one confused investor asked if they could let their teenage daughter test the app and she immediately got it. “The moment that we have an investor telling us this is great, I love the app, then we’re doing something wrong,” adds Walraven. “We’d rather have an investor saying like what is? What? What are you doing? … Remember Clubhouse? … When VCs love your app — run! Especially when it’s consumer.”

So far, Yolk’s three founders — who are building out of Singapore and the Netherlands — have nabbed $1.25 million in pre-seed funding from a number of Asian investment funds and angels to get the app into iPhone users’ hands. The official launch out of beta took place a couple of days ago, on February 26.

Investors in the pre-seed include Forge Ventures (part of Alto Partners); Sequoia (via its Scout Fund); John Lindfors, partner at DST Global; Quek Siu Rui, co-founder, CEO of Carousell; Koh Boon Hwee, of Altara Ventures; Temasek; Aaron Tan, co-founder, CEO Carro; Takashi Yamada, founder and CEO of Tableall; Spencer Yang, co-founder and CEO of Gomu.co; and Honey Mittal, co-founder and CEO of Locofy.ai.

Asked about their strategy for scaling usage, Walraven says they’re putting a lot of effort into selling their vision for Yolk on TikTok, of all places.

“There’s a whole bunch of things that we want to do on TikTok,” he says. “What TikTok enables us to do is also get feedback — especially if we’re very transparent about the building. We’re very transparent about the money we’re raising and take people on the journey. I think that’s super important. Rather than just jump on these viral things and get a lot of views. So TikTok we got quite good at converting people into buying into the vision of the app and why we’re doing what we’re doing.”

He also mentions Telegram and WhatsApp groups,  suggesting there’s under-appreciated potential for piggybacking on those messaging giants’ platforms to promote a new social app. Beyond that, he says the team has plans for taking their pitch into universities to talk to students and learn what they dig. The hard limit on invites before users are let into the app is also an intentional “filter”.

“If you’re not going to invite friends then you’re probably too old,” he adds. “It’s a natural filter for us to get much clearer data and just get a more hardcore group of people using it.”

He denies they’re intentionally building another acqui-hire play (like Pie). The aim, at least initially, is to shoot for scale by seeing if they can get enough kids inspired to point and shoot their AI sticker gun. If so, he reckons there’s milage in subscriptions as a consumer app business model — saying they’ll be looking to experiment with premium features soon.

“Subscription’s picking up,” he suggests. “I think people are more likely to pay for an app if it’s something that they find valuable.”

“We have a whole list of things that we can convert people on — value add in terms of features, value add in terms of the small social stuff — like the Gas App; who looked at your profile and the flirty sort of elements, right?” he goes on. “If you go a level deeper in terms of social… I want to see who visited my profile. But I also might want to block where people can’t see that I saw their profile. So there’s all these tiny social little things that I learned back in the days with social games that I was working on. But I think subscription is a valid model these days. The conversion is much higher than it used to be.”


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