Mezzanine Multi Wall (Image credit Oblong industries)

John Underkoffler, CEO Oblong Industries (Image credit Oblong Industries)
John Underkoffler, CEO Oblong Industries

John Underkoffler is the founder and CEO of Oblong. ET interviewed Underkoffler in a collaboration space in their offices in Shoreditch, London, UK. It is a demonstration centre for their collaboration technology Mezzanine. Their solution, an early version of which was first seen in the film the Minority Report, takes collaboration to a new level. It enables participants to experience an immersive meeting environment. Underkoffler referred to the technology during the interview several times, demonstrating its potential. Underkoffler was on the West coast of the United States in a similar room to that ET was in.

ET:          You’ve probably been asked lots of times but, The Minority Report, how did that help your thinking?

John Underkoffler:          The work in The Minority Report around the future of user interface design is actually based on my dissertation work back at the MIT media lab. In a sense I had a step up, I wasn’t starting from scratch with a design. In fact, what I built was real, functioning, working systems not a prototype. The real lesson in my earlier work was about simplicity. Unlike when you read my dissertation you need 900 pages to bore someone to tears with your idea. On the screen, you have zero seconds to explain it. So as soon as those scenes began, it was important that you understood what the Tom Cruise character was doing.

You don’t have the luxury of 30 seconds to describe how this new system worked. It had to be self-describing. It was the process of designing, the stream lining and simplification that went from the academic system to this highly appealing, visual but instantly legible cinematic version, that was the main lesson. Minority Report was critical because in the early days, when no one knew what we were talking about with spatial computing and collaborative computing, it would take an hour to try to describe it for them. Or, you could say “did you see Minority Report?” People would say, “Yes.” You’d say ”It’s literally that” and then you just saved yourself 59 minutes.

ET:          What is your vision for the company?

John Underkoffler:          Well, the company is designed, and has been from the start, to get to essentially a state of ubiquity. To get to a state where every human being in the world uses technology in a way that we envision it and a way that we designed it. That’s basically around collaboration and really bringing human minds together. That’s sort of a high-level answer. The company is really designed to change the meaning of computation, to change what people understand these devices to be about and be capable of.

ET:          One is the phrases that Oblong uses is “the idea was to take the computer out of the computer.” Could you explain that a bit more?

John Underkoffler:          It’s actually a little sneaky there, it has two meanings. One is the idea of putting computation into architecture as you see around you. The other is to foreground the human piece, to make computers fade away. To not have the feeling, which it has been historically, that you have to project your consciousness into this cold, barren landscape here. It is a hospitable place for your ideas.

ET:          Who is your inspiration and why?

John Underkoffler:          A lot of them tend to be artists. I’m going to nominate Terry Gilliam and Peter Greenaway. People who use a medium that’s already there, like cinema, but do something very, very new and open people’s mind about what kind of communication is possible. I think we’re doing the same thing, here at Oblong.

ET:           How would you describe your leadership style?

John Underkoffler:          Intensely collaborative. That’s what I hope it is at least. I’m personally happiest when I find my psychology and my mind work best when there’s lots of good input. When people are generating and sharing ideas, bouncing them around. That’s how you build something sturdy and tall very, very quickly. I think that strict hierarchies are going to be seen as a thing of the past. The team around you is absolutely critical.

ET:          What are your personal challenges over the next twelve months?

John Underkoffler:          I plan to read a book. The real challenge for a company like Oblong that has large aspirations, is it needs a lot of innovation to be continuously and continually happening. One of the challenges for me as a CEO is to remain plugged in, in the right way, so that I can contribute to that. It’s very, very easy to get absorbed into lots of critical day to day manoeuvres and sort of let go of product direction. The challenge is to maintain that balance.

ET:          What was your darkest business day and how did you overcome it?

John Underkoffler:          Being a first-time entrepreneur, I think it was a lot of very slow motion. It’s everything, all of the ideas and all of the progress. When I started out I really didn’t know completely what I was doing, which I’m happy at this point to cop to. But there was a moment in 2011, 2012, where we realised we hadn’t really scaled revenue, yet we were just launching a product that we scaled as if the product had been out for years. It’s really, really difficult to first recognise the mistake and wind things back so that the company doesn’t explode.

ET:          Can you share a tip for CEOs trying to bring an innovation to market.

John Underkoffler:          To compartmentalise the full ambition in one part of your head, because what you find is you simply cannot hand the full vision to the world. That’s part of what we tried to do earlier on. It’s too difficult and too much for the world to take all at one go. You have to produce neat, smaller pieces of it that to get people interested and excited. Then you can portion out the full version of the vision piece by piece. You’re setting yourself up for a huge amount of disappointment if you think you can get the whole thing out of your head and go “Here you go, please, have some.” It’s just not possible.

ET:          What was your proudest moment to date?

John Underkoffler:          The proudest moment that comes very easily to mind is in early January when, for the first time in about five years, we had an entire company together in one place. It was the sales kick off meeting. When it was over, we made sure that everyone from all of the offices around the world were gathered in one place. It was just amazing to see this team of people who’ve come together, all of them way, way better than me. These are people who really like working together and that’s important to see, the congeniality, the collegiality. The idea that people are pulling together on this one big rope, and having a great time doing it, it’s a very proud moment.

ET:          Do you think you’ve become more of an advocate for collaboration because those people already know each other? One of the advantages of video conferencing is that you see and you can have far better interaction because you know people, you see gestures. You see facial expressions and you know their likes and dislikes from the conversations you’ve had over time.

John Underkoffler:          Absolutely. I don’t think it’d be possible to run this company, which is still fairly small but scattered around the globe, without the technology that we built. We run literally every part of our business on and through Mezzanine. It’s not just the faces as you’ll see in a minute, it’s also the information and data, the documents, the applications. I can literally see what it is they’re working on and they can see at the same time what I’m doing, even if they are two very separate tasks. That’s part of what’s new about the system. But yes, this collaborative technology makes it possible to have high functioning teams that are nevertheless very distributed.

ET:          What’s the latest business book you read or favourite book on podcast?

John Underkoffler:          Well I’m naming two. One is about DDG and is titled Discovery-Driven Growth (by McGrath and MacMillan). All of the executives and half the company have read it. It transformed how we do product development, and it also highlighted that we had to transform other pieces of the company as well. It’s a really important set of ideas about working quickly on manageable, well-defined pieces of the problem and testing every step along the way so that if particularly production isn’t working, you stop. Literally after two weeks or after a month. You take those teams or that expertise and that energy and you redirect it toward something else. It’s about how to structure really important steps that will lead to growth. It’s a great book.

The other one is actually even more important, Daniel Kahneman’s book from 2012, called ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’. Daniel Kahneman’s got a Nobel Prize for economics when in fact he is a psychologist. It’s almost euphoric but by the time you finish it, you realise, wow, for the first time somebody’s actually written what’s kind of a user manual for a piece of the human mind. It exposes you to lots of the minds abilities and how we make decisions, but also to strategies for recognising the deficits that we have.

ET:          What are the key business challenges for the next 12 months?

John Underkoffler:          Communication. We’ve always had that challenge, because with Mezzanine we were introducing not just a product but a category. That always cuts both ways. Its great to be first and its hardest to be first.

Therefore, to the communication piece, we need the world to understand deeply that the status quo is not at the edge of the horizon. It’s not a flat world that you’re going to fall off of. There’s something over the horizon and it’s actually available today. What they see over the horizon is Mezzanine. Getting people to understand that it’s not just the faces anymore. It’s the faces and the work and the applications and the data, and that you can have them at the same time. That’s what’s new.

People are currently only taking first steps, it’s much easier than it was when we launched the product five years ago when people really had very little idea of what we were talking about. It’s much further along now because people understand that collaboration is important, but they haven’t yet internalised what it should look like. That’s our job. Our job is to explain clearly and show the world what real collaboration looks like.

ET:          How can companies shake off the culture of linear point to point communication technologies?

John Underkoffler:          You’ve gone right to the very heart of what we’re trying to break and that word is linear. Our stuff is deliberately nonlinear. It’s parallel instead of serial. I think the answer that works for everyone is that for a moment you have to stop thinking about what computers suggest about how computation works. For example, this device, that you are holding is similar to everyone used all around the world including these in our pockets (Smartphones). They’re all single user devices. We’ve got it embedded really deeply in our minds that computation is for one person at a time, one person in isolation. This is a new computer experience for multiple people at a time. Parallel instead of serial. Plural instead of singular. Nonlinear instead of linear. That’s all three but not the actual answer.

The actual answer is stop paying attention to computers and what they seem to be telling you about the world. Simply pay attention to the rest of the physical world. It’s very easy to talk but at the same time we don’t have to take turns. Space, time, gestures and facial expression sort it all out for us. Three of us can stand at a white board at the same time and make marks on that surface.

That’s something that would make a computer, any computer that is not Mezzanine, explode but for us in the physical world, it’s completely natural. We don’t have to think about it. All of these experiences that we take for granted in the real world are unimaginable for today’s computers except we’re making them the standard. Here we are side by side whiteboarding despite being separated by, I don’t know, 15,000 kilometres away at the same time.

ET:          Where do you see the latest collaboration technology like yours really making a difference?

John Underkoffler:          We have had our moments when collaboration went from a disused and avoided word maybe eight years ago down to the last round of failures to a word today that is embraced. It is also embraced because many, many very different companies and different products describe what they do as collaboration. File sharing companies describe their product as collaboration.

ET:          It is a buzz word.

John Underkoffler:          Yes, it’s a buzz word. We are cleaning up the vocabulary and the easiest way to clean it up is, at least from our point of view, to say collaboration means we all see the same thing at the same time in the same way.

ET:          What keeps you up at night?

John Underkoffler:          A combination of excitement and new ideas that I’m very impatient about getting started on. We can only do so much at a time. So that combined with an ongoing problem of making sure to get this stuff out there as fast we possibly can. Velocity is extremely important for young companies like us. Velocity is also important for new ideas. We need to keep the pace up. The world needs to see this stuff coming at them and they need to absorb it.

ET:          How much influence is machine learning having on your production in the future?

John Underkoffler:          We are doing integration with some prototype machine learning or AI edge technology that allows information to be automatically populated around this visual workspace. One thing you could do is just listen to the conversation and what’s happening in the room. Have the speech recognition agents run in the background. As it detects the pattern of discourse around the south of Italy, lets say, or the economic turmoil in Mesoamerican states or whatever it is, it can start retrieving information and sticking it over on the side where you can make use of it. To that extent, it’s a fantastic adjacent technology. In a way analogous to digital whiteboarding but is completely different from it. Just plug all these things in to your overall, holistic experience of computation.

ET:          It sounds like you’re putting it as another player in the room almost.

John Underkoffler:          That’s exactly right, that’s a perfect analogy. These are designed to be multi participant and one or more machine learning agents were just served as another slightly lesser participant.

ET:          How do you prioritise your day?

John Underkoffler:          The predictable emergencies that every company has rolling on schedule has to take top priority. But the key is to build an organisation where most of the important stuff happens automatically. Automatically in the sense that the teams are superb and each team has taken the stuff that needs to be taken care of. Most of your time has to be spent on pushing forward, looking forward, pulling forward, making sure that everything is moving into the future. The product, the technology, the ideas.

ET:          What’s the best and worst decision you’ve made as a CEO?

John Underkoffler:          It was a decision by omission. That decision was not getting started on a product properly soon enough. A very early serious mistake. Building on the core technology which is a perfectly fine thing to do for any profitable business serving large customers like Boeing and GE.

We would build incredible gesture based systems for them to let them see things and handle things in new ways. There’s no repeatable business there. There is a discipline that comes with actually putting out a product. You’ve either done it or you haven’t. You either know how to do it or you don’t know how to do it. If you don’t know how to do it then you’re not actually running a company to scale. So that was a very bad decision. The honest decision was to continue going on this path with more research, more core technology now. That should’ve happened earlier.

The best decision is finding just astonishing people who are geniuses in every regard and building the company with them.

ET:          What’s the one question to ask another CEO?

John Underkoffler:          I would ask, how much time do you set aside to speak with other CEOs? It’s a huge mistake that I’ve realised I’ve made over the years. I feel like everyone else is too important and keeping aside a little bit of time to talk to other human being who have the unique pleasures and tortures of world. And I’ve only just become aware of how therapeutic but how developmentally important it is to just talk about those experiences.

ET:          Can you answer that question yourself?

John Underkoffler:          Formerly, essentially zero, but now I’m trying to consciously to have some form of meaningful contact with other CEOs at least once a week.

ET:          Thank you.

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