Most of us don’t need a landline anymore—41 percent of Americans no longer have one. But along with that old-fashioned ringer went a straightforward way to communicate, one that didn’t require tech know-how or parental controls. A new startup called Insensi wants to bring back some of that ease of use, with a communication device that combines the simplicity of a landline with the beauty of a touchscreen tablet.
Called Ily, the $199 device is part of a growing number of gadgets seeking to become a family’s communication hub. Bloom, another such (Google Ventures–backed) device, launched last week, and like Ily, its founders want to consolidate where and how families stay in touch. Bloom is slightly more involved, and includes a wrist-worn device that can automatically share photos. With Ily, everything either happens on the device, or via a mobile app. It lets users make traditional phone calls, but it also allows for video chat, messaging, and sending finger-drawn doodles (similar to the Apple Watch’s touch-to-touch sketching feature). And it’s plugged into one place, so just like an old landline, it won’t get lost and doesn’t need to charge.
Insensi CEO Ilan Abehassera hired creative consultancy MAP—the London–based designers behind the Kano computer kit, Virgin Atlantic’s food trays, and this sensor-filled toy ball—to work on the hardware and the user interface for Ily. Both Abehassera and MAP Design Director Jon Marshall are parents to young kids, and as they see it, our current communication devices don’t make it easy for kids to stay in touch with grandparents, cousins, family friends, and other meaningful people.
The problem comes down to an issue of ownership: Kids under the age of, say, 12 don’t have any agency over their parents’ devices, because the phone numbers (or the Instagram, Snapchat, or Whatsapp accounts) don’t belong to them. Yet parents are rightfully reluctant to hand over their phones, which are likely portals to their professional lives. “My kids can use my phone for Skype, but I don’t trust them, because I’ve got clients on Skype on my phone, too,” Marshall says. “It’s a challenge to design something that as parents you feel like your kids can just walk up to. In the past it was the landline phone.”
Ily works by either connecting to traditional phone jacks or to Wi-Fi. Connecting to a family member is as easy as tapping her avatar on the touchscreen. From there, you’re presented with a menu of options that includes making a phone call, placing a video call, sending a text, or transmitting a drawing. “Even if they’re not tech-savvy, they’ll know to tap on an avatar,” Marshall says, of little kids and older users in particular. Ily also comes with mobile apps for iOS and Android, so even if a parent is on the road, one of their kids can call from the home portal.
Marshall says the call for simpler modes of communication has been resonating through the design community for a couple of years. Even though we all value our smartphones for the Swiss Army knives they’ve become, the same multi-functionality can be overwhelming, leading to a loss of personal connection landlines used to provide. “Precisely because these devices are so successful and can do so many things, they’ve left open a human desire to create devices that have more singular functions, especially when they’re to do with strong emotional things, like in this case, communication and playfulness.”