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Duke alum advocates for device-free spaces with startup Yondr

<p>Graham Dugong founded Yondr in 2014 to help create device-free venues.&nbsp;</p>

Graham Dugong founded Yondr in 2014 to help create device-free venues. 

Device-free spaces are gaining popularity thanks to a phone-locking pouch developed by a Duke alum.

Graham Dugoni, Trinity ’09, founded the startup Yondr, which offers a unique alternative to taking away people’s phones before they enter a venue. The Yondr pouch can lock smartphones placed inside them, preventing people from accessing their phones during an event while allowing the owners to keep the pouches with them. Users can then take their pouches to unlocking stations outside of the venue’s phone-free zone in order to use their phones.

Yondr’s technology has been employed by performers ranging from comedian Dave Chappelle to musician Alicia Keys to create phone-free spaces for the duration of their events.

Though Yonder—which Dugoni started in 2014—took off due to the product’s use at performances by popular artists, Dugoni noted that the applications reach beyond the performance industry.

“It’s not just about entertainment,” Dugoni said. “We have tons of customers all over now. They use the product for everything from individual households to manufacturing lines to schools. It’s about creating spaces that people can be swept up into a shared mood.”

Dugoni explained he came up with the idea for lockable pouches for phones through a combination of his personal experiences at concerts and his outlook on the human experience. His interest in sociology and the philosophy of technology contributed to his idea, he added.

“About four and a half years ago, I was reading different philosophers at the time, mostly Kierkegaard and Heidegger, and I was going to a lot of music festivals and shows,” Dugoni said. “I would always look around and see everyone glued to their phones, and I would see people recording other people in public spaces. At that time, it sort of clicked. It became very clear to me that the idea of device-free spaces would become commonplace.”

Dugoni explained that modern philosophers Hubert Dreyfus, a University of California at Berkeley professor who famously criticized artificial intelligence, and Albert Borgmann, a University of Montana professor who studies technology’s impact on society, helped him better conceptualize the changes he observed in people’s experiences. This philosophy—which Dugoni said he has carried with him and refined internally—played a significant role in his decision to start Yondr.

“People haven’t realized how fundamentally different it is to be human in a world with a smartphone in your pocket versus not,” Dugoni said.

The popular pouch he designed came from humble beginnings. Dugoni studied political science at Duke and played soccer for four years, before moving on to play professional soccer in Norway after he graduated. Dugoni then worked in finance for a few years before deciding not to remain in the traditional workforce. With the idea for Yondr in mind, he moved to San Francisco and started contacting manufacturers. Once he had locked down a design, he said he began selling the pouches out of the back of his car.

“I started going around to venues and schools and just tried to sell them out of the car,” Dugoni said. “The first venue that actually let me do it was a burlesque show out in Oakland. I started selling at some shows there and then it just started building. Eventually, I did some shows with bigger artists and it just got a foothold.”

Despite the pouch’s rising popularity, Dugoni insisted that the product itself is not what is truly exciting to him. Instead, he said that he is more satisfied with the progress made towards device-free spaces.

“It’s more about the general movement,” he explained. “Creating device-free spaces is just one practical element of how we can live happily in the digital age. The Yondr technology isn’t important, it’s more about what it stands for.”

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