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Guest post by Brad Feld.
Over the past 30 years, I've had a series of powerful moments with computers that profoundly shaped my perspective on technology. The first was as a 12-year-old when my Uncle Charlie took me into the data center for Frito-Lay in 1977, handed me a big black APL book, and sat me down in front of a computer terminal. Another was when Raj Bhargava, Matt Cutler, Eric Richard, and Mathew Gray hovered around me in front of a Project Athena computer in the MIT Student Center in 1994 and showed me Freshman Fishwrap and Wandex running on a very early version of Mosiac. The most recent happened two years ago when I walked into Oblong's lab in downtown Los Angeles and John Underkoffler slipped some gloves onto my hands.
John and I met at MIT in 1984. I was a sophomore and John was a freshman. Everyone at MIT is "interesting"—from the moment I met John I knew he was "uniquely interesting." We became very close friends and did a lot of fun things together. When I moved from Boston to Boulder in 1995, I stopped seeing John on a regular basis, but I periodically heard about some of the amazing things he was doing at the MIT Media Lab with new approaches to user interface.
John resurfaced in my life when Minority Report came out in 2002. I found out that he was the movie's science and technology advisor and had created all of the computer / user interactions. I was stunned by the UI having spent the previous 15 years stuck in the world of keyboards and mice being tethered to a computer screen. With one very public demo, John had created a clear vision of the future of how people would interact with computers that built on all the work he had been doing at MIT over the years. We talked a little over the next few years, but we didn't get together until November 2006. I wrote about this meeting in my post I've Seen The Future. During that evening, I had one of those special moments where I knew I was not just seeing the future, but interacting with it.
Through my venture capital fund, Foundry Group, we made a significant investment in Oblong. One of our investing themes is "human computer interaction"—we strongly believe that the current way we interact with computers—primarily with a keyboard and a mouse—is obsolete and will feel as quaint in 20 years as the idea of using punch cards does today. John and his colleagues at Oblong have created what we believe will be the next major UI paradigm—something we are calling the spatial operating environment (SOE).
What Oblong has created definitely falls in the "you've got to see it to believe it" category. As an avid reader of science fiction, I'm always amazed to look backwards and think how the past of science fiction actually predicted the current of science fact. Oblong is creating a deep, fundamental base of software that in 2002 first appeared as science fiction in the movie Minority Report. While the UI is the first thing that you'll see, this is merely the surface of Oblong's spatial operating environment, which understands space, geometry, your hands and what they are doing, and the huge amount of real time data required to make an environment like this work effectively in the networked world.
Over the past two years, Oblong has very quietly put together an incredibly gifted team of software developers to create what we believe is the future of how humans will interact with computers. We hope you will join us on this amazing journey.
Working with Watson
The goal of each Watson Experience Center—located in New York, San Francisco, and Cambridge—is to demystify AI and challenge visitor’s expectations through more tangible demonstrations of Watson technology. Visitors are guided through a series of narratives and data interfaces, each grounded in IBM’s current capabilities in machine learning and AI. These sit alongside a host of Mezzanine rooms where participants further collaborate to build solutions together.
The process for creating each experience begins with dynamic, collaborative research. Subject matter experts take members of the design and engineering teams through real-world scenarios—disaster response, financial crimes investigation, oil and gas management, product research, world news analysis—where we identify and test applicable data sets. From there, we move our ideas quickly to scale.
Accessibility to the immersive pixel canvas for everyone involved is key to the process. Designers must be able to see their ideas outside of the confines of 15″ laptops and prescriptive software. Utilizing tools tuned for rapid iteration at scale, our capable team of designers, data artists, and engineers work side-by-side to envision and define each experience. The result is more than a polished marketing narrative; it's an active interface that allows the exploration of data with accurate demonstrations of Watson’s capabilities—one that customers can see themselves in.
Under the Hood
Underlying the digital canvas is a robust spatial operating environment, g‑speak, which allows our team to position real data in a true spatial context. Every data point within the system, and even the UI itself, is defined in real world coordinates (measured in millimeters, not pixels). Gestures, directional pointing, and proximity to screens help us create interfaces that more closely understand user intent and more effectively humanize the UI.
This award-nominated collaboration with IBM is prototyped and developed at scale at Oblong’s headquarters in Los Angeles as well as IBM’s Immersive AI Lab in Austin. While these spaces are typically invite-only, IBM is increasingly open to sharing the content and the unique design ideas that drive its success with the public. This November, during Austin Design Week, IBM will host a tour of their Watson Immersive AI Lab, including live demonstrations of the work and a Q&A session with leaders from the creative team.
Can't make it to Austin? Contact our Solutions team for a glimpse of our vision of the future at our headquarters in the Arts District in Los Angeles.