Founder and CEO of Oblong Industries John Underkoffler’s early career reads like a Hollywood script—because it is. But the ruminations that shaped Oblong products today, such as its flagship Mezzanine and technologies like g-speak, spawned while Underkoffler earned his PhD at MIT.
“I'd been feeling itchy about the state of user interface since 1994 when it seemed to me that the Macintosh UI, which is still the sole and dominant GUI, had a good run,” said Underkoffler. Remember, this was 1994. "It had a good run, what's the next one going to be? Let's build the next one. Surely now that the machines are way better, we deserve a way better UI and something that's more human."
Underkoffler began working on that problem, and by the end of his dissertation in 1999, he had several viable technology demos that people grew excited about—including the I/O Bulb and Luminous Room systems.
When renowned movie director Steven Spielberg looks to create a technology environment of the future, he goes to where galactic ideas are hatched. While Underkoffler was pursuing his research on the next UI, legendary production designer Alex McDowell visited MIT’s Media Lab. “He was on a shopping spree, trying to load up his basket with chunks of future that he could take back to the movie, to populate Spielberg's film [Minority Report] in a completely believable way. Steven said, ‘Build me a believable Washington, D.C., 2054. Not a sci-fi one, build me the one that we would actually get if we just waited around 50 years.’"
The visit from McDowell led to the second phase of Underkoffler’s quest for the ultimate user interface. “The way that worked is so bizarre that it only happens in real life,” he said. A self-professed movie maniac, Underkoffler recounted after several months of correspondence by email and phone.
With the surreal clip of a Hollywood plot, Underkoffler was asked if he would like to join the effort and help build the future of Minority Report. His answer, of course, was an enthusiastic yes. With that, he boarded a plane to Los Angeles.
“I moved to Los Angeles on Thanksgiving Day, 2000, and spent the next year of my life helping Minority Report build that kind of completely self-consistent future in the film.”
Underkoffler designed the “next-next-gen” UI in Minority Report as a deliberate statement. “The future of user interfaces should be architectural in scale, human in feel. Those things look very balletic, they're very physical, they're about the human and what it is to be a human sifting through information—not trying to make your own humanity fit into the little rectangle of your current UI, which is kind of what we all do today.”
During the next 18 to 24 months, Underkoffler worked as the science advisor on films including Iron Man, and went back to work on other real-world technologies.
Who hasn’t seen one these futuristic movies and wanted that technology now? For some companies, all you have to do is ask. “Along the way I was getting phone calls from big Fortune 50 companies, and the conversation was usually along the lines of, ‘Hey that stuff in Minority Report seems great. Is it real? Could we buy it?’” To which Underkoffler replied, “A lot of it was real, we didn't quite implement all of it. ‘Could you implement the rest of it and then could we buy it?’”
The epiphany followed. "Thank you, universe, for clobbering me over the head. Let's do it. Let's build these ideas in a commercial context. Let's build them as real working technology that we can move out into the market and that can help people solve real-world problems through an immensely more powerful idea about what UI can be. And that is how we get to Oblong.”
Underkoffler built prototypes of the technology in real working form in late 2004, and by 2006 Oblong was incorporated. With its headquarters in Los Angeles, today Oblong has offices in London, New York, Boston, Washington D.C., Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Boulder, Los Altos, Munich, and Barcelona.
Oblong’s Mezzanine was launched in 2012. “We'd spent the intervening time building out the core technology, building bespoke systems on top of the technology for forward-thinking clients who were wise enough to know that the huge data and visualization problems they had were not computational problems. They were UI problems. [These people] would find us, sometimes through Minority Report,” said Underkoffler. “Then we'd build massive interactive multi-user environments for them to see, understand, and manipulate their chunk of world in ways that had been previously unimaginable.”
Oblong worked on large-scale projects for Boeing, GE, and Saudi Aramco, with the intent of gathering product ideas. “The thing that was common through all of the systems we built for these companies, even though they were addressing radically different sectors, was the collaboration piece.”
One light bulb moment came during the Boeing projects. “We'd built this enormous, gesturally driven, multi-user, hyper visualization system for Boeing, and they would run these global-scale simulations for a couple of hours and scrape up petabytes or exabytes of information and spend the next weeks analyzing it,” said Underkoffler. “Turns out they also do their budgetary review in the simulation room. It’s the only space in all of Boeing where they can get more than one laptop screen up on the displays side by side. Of course, we designed for exactly that, but sometimes information like that crystallizes the whole thing for you. It did for us.”
From the beginning, Mezzanine was a multi-user system. “The minute you're using gesture, you're using spacial input, and you've got lots of pixels,” explained Underkoffler. “You don't have your nose pressed right up against a 40-foot pixel wall. You stand back naturally. And the moment you stand back, you open up space—physical space, conceptual space, social space—for other people to stand there. From day one we made it so that it wasn't just one person who could use such a such system but arbitrary numbers of users at the same time. That was what all of these systems really had in common.”
The first version of Mezzanine was a single-room solution. A year later the second version of Mezzanine connected rooms. “Now you've got this big delicious pixel space to work in, and it's shared across space to other teams who have similar rooms,” said Underkoffler. Then the remote participation feature was added.
“A big moment for us along the product development path was about two years ago when we were able to announce the genetic explosion of Mezzanine,” said Underkoffler. “We went from a single offering to a full product family. That happened at absolutely just the right time for us.” The original Mezzanine was a six-screen system with a tryptic on the front and side displays. Now the 200, 300, 600, and 650 series lets companies scale up and down to whatever size teams and whatever size rooms they have.
When asked about Oblong’s future, Underkoffler said, “There's a bunch of vectors, of course, not hundreds but a handful of really important vectors for us, and one of the biggest is partnership.” In June 2018, Oblong announced a partnership with Cisco that brings the Webex collaboration endpoints into the Oblong Mezzanine.
Further on the horizon, “Since the beginning I've been driving toward the ubiquity of these ideas. From my point of view, we need to—as quickly as possible—get to a beautifully designed digital world, where collaboration isn't an application, or a piece of hardware. It's not a thing you fire up for 12 minutes out of the day when you need to work.”
“I'm seeking to do no more than to recapitulate what the world already does. I think of air a lot. I know that sounds weird, but I think of air because it's a beautiful and incredibly neutral medium. Air transmits a conversation, it transmits language in one direction, and it transmits in two directions if you and I are talking. If there's a bunch of people, it transmits a bunch of different discussions. It doesn't care about language; it's good for one person and it's good for a million people. And it has great spatial properties. I think we need to build digital systems that are like space, that are like air, that are not specialized to particular kinds of work, and collaboration, the idea that sometimes you’re working alone, but a lot of times your working with other people, that should be a primary idea in our design of future digital systems.”