Q&A: Oblong Industries CEO John Underkoffler On How Tech Is Driving Collaboration

Oblong Industries
Oblong Industries CEO John Underkoffler.

John Underkoffler, CEO of Oblong Industries, served as Steven Spielberg’s science advisor for the film Minority Report, which memorably featured star Tom Cruise interacting with futuristic interactive spacial computer technology. Well, that future has arrived, and now it’s in the hands of business leaders.

Underkoffler has brought that same spatial computing technology to the corporate environment via Oblong’s Mezzanine visual collaboration conference room solution for enterprise organizations. The tech is designed to help foster collaboration and bring people together – particularly for distributed teams. A look at some of Oblong’s customers, including NASA, GE, Fujitsu, Adobe, Lockheed Martin and CBRE, shows forward-thinking organizations with a need for long-range collaboration.

Chief Executive talked with Underkoffler about how technology is driving collaboration, how he manages risk and what the future holds for technology and business.

Q: Share your thoughts about collaboration and the ways in which technology has evolved over the years to help facilitate it.

A: That’s the key question for all of business. So in a way, we almost have to start with a kind of vocabulary inspection. The word collaboration itself has gone through cycles in tech history, and at some point it’s been something that’s very exciting to people. When we started designing the Mezzanine product, the word itself was very much out of favor. I think people were feeling kind of burned by the last go-around. But it’s very much back in vogue now more than ever.

And in a way, it’s almost unfortunate because people mean so many different things by collaboration. File-sharing companies say that their products represent collaboration, there’s the kind of broad spectrum, and meanings that are attributed to it, and I don’t think that any of them is invalid. But our view and our approach at Oblong is that you actually need them all. The word collaboration, if we’re going to formally look at it as a thing that organizations and the enterprise needs to do, has to be defined by what it means in the real world, the world that it doesn’t concern itself with computers and digital workflows.

“I think that we’re vectoring toward a future where the idea of collaboration as a kind of always-on future of computation is inevitable.”

And that means everything. That means eye contact, that means looking across the table at the two or three people that you’re working with. It means physical artifact, it means maps or diagrams unrolled on big tables, it means people standing up and going to whiteboards, it’s all of that taken together that captures the way that people work and work collaboratively. And so our solutions really take their cues from that kind of physical real world collaborative behavior that people have had for, frankly, thousands of years. And to kind of pull that in a respectful way, I guess I would say, into the digital realm and into the pixel realm.

Q: How do you manage the risk factor in taking new chances and reaching out into new areas of technology that haven’t really been explored? When should CEOs take a risk and when should they play it safe?

A: I think the considerations around that question are radically different depending on whether you’re a medium to large-sized established company, on the one hand, or on the other hand, whether you’re a start-up or a relatively young technology company.

In that latter case, and that’s certainly where Oblong is, I can’t imagine why you wouldn’t take risks. I mean, the whole point is to do something as bold as possible and to do it with conviction, and to do it authentically, and as well as you possibly can because what you’re trying to do is to convince the world that there’s something that they’re not seeing yet. Some amazing new way to enable people’s creative abilities, and synthetic abilities, and to strap a fantastic exoskeleton on to the talents of the workflow, that is at the end of the day, what the enterprise is built on.

That last part of that very long sentences is specific maybe to Oblong in the kind of collaborative workflow technology concerns. But again, the risk thing, I think that easier job, as a CEO of a young company to modulate the risk so that it’s not insane, but to get cantilevered as far out on the kind of risk reward curve as you possibly can.

Q: Is there anything that you and your leadership team there look for when you’re adding people to your team that goes beyond the resume?

A: I think the key characteristic that more than any other sort of predicts long-term success for any individual is really passion around the product and the stakes of the products, and the technology and the company philosophy itself. In a young company, no one has what’s just a regular job. We’re all working at 160%, and really leaning forward and pulling this enormous rope all in the same direction.

And so to the extent that people are interviewing with us, considering taking a job with us, and they’ve done a bunch of research, they understand what it is that we’re doing, why it’s different from everything else, and they want to be a part of that. They want to be a part of, frankly, both the pros and cons of first-mover circumstances. It’s an advantage and the disadvantage. To the extent that they understand all that and are really, really excited about it, that’s huge.

Then on top of that, we really look for people who have a kind of broad and deep interest that may be unexpected as a bundle, but that somehow knit together people who are 20 years into a distinguished engineering career, but are fanatic about design and have taught themselves a bunch about design on the side. That kind of inadvertent hybrid thing, or deliberate personal hybrid thing goes a very long way.

Q: What are some of the big picture things we’re going to be talking about two or three years from now in terms of collaborative technology and large-scale visualization.

A: For me, it comes down to a single word, which is ubiquity. I think that we’re vectoring toward a future where the idea of collaboration as a kind of always-on future of computation is inevitable. And it’s exciting for a bunch of reasons. One is that it’s right at the core of the company’s philosophy, so to participate in that inevitable future is really, really exciting.

Second is that it doesn’t attend every piece of technology or every piece of workflow. So email changed the world, but it’s not like email’s going to solve every problem, or you can imagine a future for your laptop where it’s all email all the time. And I think that there’s both a qualitative and a quantitative difference that we’re chasing and that we can see really, really clearly. It’s just a couple of years in the future, which is that the meaning of your computer is going to change. It’s not going to change—it’s going to double.

So you’ll end up with the desktop that you’ve always had with the applications and all that stuff that are just for you. That’s what every computer today is. It’s like a little digital brain that echoes some of your own brain, and it’s a repository, etc., etc., but it’s just for you. The user interface only knows about you, it only thinks about you. You are logged in literally, and that’s what it is. Oblong is putting a layer over that, which is the kind of always-on collaborative layer, and that collaboration actually applies to almost everything that you do. Not at every moment of the day, you’re still going to need to copyedit a thing by yourself or make some adjustments to a CAD model by yourself.

But when you need to connect your mind to another human mind or a team of human minds, which again, it is going be the norm and is going be the way the world does business, that should be instantaneous, and it should be a core piece of what the machine does. That’s an enormous shift in understanding, in expectations, and in meaning of computation, and frankly, if we get it right, it’s as big as the GUI itself.

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