IF YOU’VE BEEN TO a comedy show or concert at one of the Triangle’s larger venues recently, you may have been asked to lock up your phone. Of course, you’ll be reunited with your cherished device eventually, but for many of us, not having constant access to our text messages, emails and social media platforms for even a couple of hours can be nerve-wracking, worthy of more than just a little bit of separation anxiety. Graham Dugoni sought to change all that.
The Duke University alum wants you to put your phone down and be present in the moment. That’s why he invented Yondr, a deceptively simple pouch that locks up your phone while you enjoy some real-life entertainment. The synthetic rubber pouches are growing ever more popular with touring comedians and musicians and, as a result, your entertainment experience is about to change, if it hasn’t already.
In the past few years, comedians Dave Chappelle, Chris Rock and Ali Wong have brought Yondr on the road with them, as have The Lumineers, Jack White, Guns N’ Roses and Alicia Keys. Fed up with playing to distracted fans bobbing in a sea of bright screens instead of laughing at jokes or dancing to music with their upturned faces, these artists contracted with Yondr to provide a phone-free environment, where they can interact with an engaged audience.
At Durham Performing Arts Center this January, guests were asked to secure their phones in Yondr pouches ahead of comic Joe Rogan’s show. The venue had only used the technology once before, at the behest of comedian Chris Rock at his show last year. Perhaps surprisingly, fans seemed to embrace the break from their digital devices. “It’s been a lovely concert experience,” says Jenny Fornoff, DPAC’s director of audience and event services. “The response has been pretty positive. It’s kind of funny to say, but people really talk to each other, they talk to the people around them, they have fun with their friends when they’re not on their phones—because they’re not able to be.”
Raleigh Magazine creative director Caitlin Harrison was at the Rogan show with her husband, Drew, and says the experience revealed how dependent on our phones we can feel, and how freeing it can be to forget about them for a while. “It was definitely crazy, but at the same time…nothing happened,” she says. “I had no missed messages. I didn’t need it. But it was a weird feeling, since you’re so used to having your phone accessible.” She adds, “It was like a weird social experiment.”
HOW IT WORKS
Guests put their phones on silent mode and slip them into the gray neoprene pouch, which is then locked with a proprietary technology similar to that of an anti-theft ink tag. They get to keep their phones in their purse or pocket, but they’re unable to use them, or even view their screens, during the show. Yondr basically turns a device into a brick for a few hours, but in case of emergency—or social media withdrawal—fans can visit the lobby to have their phones unlocked for a few minutes of phone calls or screen time. At the end of the show, they line up to have their phones freed by a row of staff.
In 2012, Dugoni was at a music festival when he witnessed two strangers film a video of a man dancing with (likely drunken) abandon. The pair then uploaded the video to Youtube. Dugoni found the incident unsettling and for him, it raised questions about connectivity, privacy and community in a tech-centric world. “Graham was looking at how modern life was unfolding and the amount of time people were spending in front of screens and computers and he anticipated a point in modern life when people would necessarily need a reprieve from that,” says Kelly Taylor, marketing and public relations director at Yondr. “So this concept of phone-free spaces, to him, it was something that would inevitably happen.” But rather than wait for it to happen, Dugoni set out to create a solution on his own. The 31-year-old former pro soccer player started working on prototypes and raised $100,000 from friends, family and investors to start San Francisco-based Yondr. He worked out a trial run with two Bay Area nightclubs and demand grew organically. Now, the pouches are becoming popular outside of concert halls and event venues. By the beginning of this year, 600 schools nationwide introduced Yondr, and educators were reporting dramatic improvements in grades and discipline. Courtrooms, call cen ters and hospitals are using the pouches to guard privacy, and businesses and organizations all over the world—from churches and libraries to hotels and summer camps—are discovering that the newest thing in tech just maybe less tech.
“We exist to put a spotlight back on human interaction,” says Taylor. “We’re hearing from people all over the world that not only want to experience more phone-free spaces, but to actually create them themselves. What’s really special about Yondr is that it really is a grassroots movement. There’s this thing that everybody’s feeling—this tension, this restlessness—and we feel like we’re here to help.”