I’ve been a remote worker for many years. As a result, I think I’ve used every flavor of video conferencing and screen sharing going back to Carbon Copy and PC Anywhere.
Today’s bell of the ball is Zoom, which has an outstanding video and audio conferencing experience. But, like most video conferencing services, there are significant limitations when you are working with content in a video conference. Existing video conferencing is adequate when one person shares content with a group. Sometimes you can pull it off when two people share content within a single video call. But once you increase the number of users trying to share content, or get into a real collaborative situation where multiple users are trying to comment on and interact with multiple pieces of shared content, everything breaks down very quickly.
We’ve been investors in a company called Oblong for many years. They invented the idea of multi-stream collaboration and have been implementing a high-end multi-stream sharing environment in high-end video conferencing rooms with their Mezzanine product. In addition, they provide a spatial operating system so you can control the interaction simply by pointing at the screen. And, with their g-speak platform, you can integrate this capability into any technology environment.
But to do this, you needed a Mezzanine room system. Until recently. Now, you can use Oblong’s cloud-based collaboration system, called Rumpus, to bring all the multi-stream sharing and concurrent interaction features of Mezzanine to any video conferencing system, including Zoom, BlueJeans, Webex, and Google Meet.
Show is better than tell for this, so I’ll walk you through several examples. Let’s use Zoom and launch things using a Zoom conference ID. Rumpus is the window on the left and Zoom is the window on the right. All of the users automatically end up in the Rumpus app based on their Zoom ID.
Next, each person in the conference can share screens at the same time (in the Rumpus window). You can see the different screen shares at the bottom. Any of the users can switch between any of the screen shares. In this case, there are three screen shares happening at the same time with the current focus on the one in the middle.
Now, we have a fourth video user who has joined and a slightly different view (partial screen side by side instead of a full-screen view. In the Rumpus window, you can see different colored annotations for the different users. All of the annotations are live and persistent on whichever screen is in focus.
With Rumpus, the conversation just flows. There’s an always-on opportunity to access content – any of the material anyone in the conference needs to talk about is always accessible. You don’t have to ask permission to share, nor do you have to override someone else’s presentation as everyone can share a different screen simultaneously. Each user has a personal cursor so annotations are done live, rather than someone verbally trying to explain what they are virtually pointing at. There are endless extensions to this collaboration interaction from the years of Oblong’s experience with multi-share in Mezzanine, each of which are quickly being rolled out in Rumpus.
The way we communicate and collaborate online is rapidly evolving. I think video conferencing has entered a new era where it is infrastructure that fades nicely into the background. However, the collaboration layer is completely nascent and is wide open for innovation. Oblong’s experience over the last decade at the high end makes it a natural for bringing the collaboration capability to the masses. And, this is another step in the path towards Oblong CEO John Underkoffler’s vision of a new UI for always-on collaboration.
Rumpus is in public beta right now on the Mac. Download it for free at rumpus.co and invite your team to try it out alongside their favorite video conferencing system. If you are interested, the Oblong team will work with you to help you get set up and using Rumpus, as they are iterating rapidly on the beta. Drop me an email and I’ll connect you.
If you are an NCIS fan, you are probably excited about the upcoming 48 Hours: NCIS which premieres on Tuesday, April 25, 2017, 10pm ET/PT. I like NCIS, but I’m especially excited about Oblong’s Mezzanine product being a central part of the show.
John Underkoffler has been showing us – through Hollywood – the future of user experiences since Minority Report (where he was the science and technology advisor.) It makes me smile to see him, and his gang at Oblong, continue to lead the way.
My friends at Oblong have been involved in some very cool new installations of their Mezzanine product in different vertical markets. They are suddenly seeing a lot of interest from hospitals and health care systems.
A recent new installation is the Mercy Virtual Care Center, which is the world’s first virtual care center.
If you are at HIMSS this week in Las Vegas, go visit Oblong at booth #10725 on the show floor and see the future of collaboration in action.
As I read about the unveiling of the Tesla Model X, I have two thoughts. The first one is “I want” (hint: Amy – you need to replace your red Range Rover.) The second is that price of admission is an amazing product.
Indulge me while I go on an amazing product rant from our portfolio.
- Glowforge is turning 3D printing inside out by using a laser to cut and engrave, instead of an extruder to, well, extrude. They just crossed the $4 million mark in day five of their thirty day pre-order campaign.
- Sphero has sold more BB-8’s in the month since they launched than even I thought possible. I have one on my desk and it gives me joy every day I’m in the office.
- Accenture just launched their Connected Analytics Experience’s immersive environment which is enabled by Mezzanine. As a daily user of Mezzanine, it actually makes video conference and collaboration tolerable.
- The demand for the 3D Robotics Solo drone is off the charts.
- Rock Band 4 comes out next week. Yesterday two new U2 songs were added as exclusives. Enough said.
- We closed an investment yesterday in a company that will announce next week. I’ve been using the product for sixty days along with their competitor’s product. Their competitor has raised 10x the amount of money so far (prior to our investment), and the product from the company we invested in, from my own head to head comparison, is amazing, compared to the “meh” product from its competitor.
- We are issuing a term sheet today to another company that I hope accepts our offer. Your mind simply explodes when you use this particular product.
I could keep going but you get the idea. When I reflect on our successful investments, regardless of the form factor (software or hardware or both) that they take, they all are amazing products. And the founders come from a product first mindset – their goal is to unambiguously create the best product that delight users every time they come in contact with it.
I’ve heard the discussion about how important product is for over 20 years of being an investor. But it’s not important anymore. Instead, an amazing product is simply price of admission. If you don’t have an amazing product, you don’t get to play, at least in my little corner of the world.
I get demos every day. Multiple times a day. I don’t want to see a powerpoint deck – I want to play with something. I don’t want to hear a description of what you do – I want to see a demo. I don’t want you to tell me your background, where you went to school, or where your grew up. I want to see what you are working on.
I still remember my first meeting with Bre Pettis at MakerBot. I walked into the Botcave in Brooklyn and was confronted with a long, narrow Brooklyn-style industrial building where I could see people working away in the back. But before I got to them, I had to walk through a 1000 sq. ft. area of MakerBot Thing-O-Matics printing away. This was an early “bot farm” and it probably took 15 minutes before I walked the gantlet. They were printing all kinds of things, there were display cases of other stuff that had been printed, and a vending machine for Thing-O-Matic parts.
When I got to the back where people were working, I totally understood what MakerBot did and what was possible with 3D printing.
We are lucky to be investors in a bunch of companies creating amazing new products. One of them, Oblong, as been working on spacial computing since John Underkoffler’s early research in the 1990’s at the MIT Media Lab. For a number of years they were described the “Minority Report” technology (John was the science/tech advisor to Spielberg and came up with all the tech in the movie.) The following video is John showing off and explaining the core G-Speak technology.
The demo is iconic and amazing, but it takes too long and is too abstract for their corporate customers buying Oblong’s Mezzanine product. The short five minute “overview video” follows.
While this gives you a feel for things, it’s still showing the “features and functionality” of the tech, applying a general use case. For several months, I kept banging on them to set up a simple use case, which is the how I use the Mezzanine system in our office. I use it every day and it’s been a huge factor for me in eliminating all of my travel.
A few months ago, Oblong had a sales off-site to go through the progress they’ve made this year and to focus on the balance of the year. They’ve had a great year, with a strong quarter-over-quarter sales ramp for Mezzanine on both a dollar and unit basis. The customer list is incredible, their classical enterprise land and expand strategy is working great, and new high-value use cases are being defined with each customer. So I smiled when I the following slide popped up on my Mezzanine during our weekly leadership team call.
While a little abstract in writing (I don’t expect you to understand the first three bullet points unless you know how Mezzanine works), when it’s shown in the first five minutes of a demo it simply blows your mind. And you totally get all three of the core technologies that Oblong has incorporated in Mezzanine (spatial computing, pixel virtualization, and data pipelining.) Your next reaction is “I want one.” And then you are ready for the feature / function discussion, which can easily go on for 30 minutes.
There is endless talk about product development and getting “personas developed” while you figure out how to build your product for them. This approach is equally useful for demos, but it is so often overlooked. I can’t tell you the number of times people start just showing me stuff, rather than saying “here’s the problem I’m going to solve for you that I know you have” – BOOM – and then I’m totally captured for the next 30 minutes.
Try it. The first five minutes is the most important with someone like me. Don’t waste it.
I stopped travelling mid-May (I arrived home in Boulder from San Francisco on 5/17). I’ve decided not to travel at all for the rest of 2013, except for three personal trips (my parents 50th anniversary, Amy’s birthday, and my birthday.) After travelling 50% – 75% of the time for the last 20 years, I needed a break.
It has been awesomely mindblowingly great to not travel.
I’ve had three other periods of extended no-travel in the last 20 years. I stopped travelling for three months after 9/11. Two summers ago Amy and I spent 60 days together in Europe (half in France / half in Tuscany) just living (no travel). Last summer we spent 90 days at our house in Keystone. It’s clear I had a taste of this, but nothing like where I am right now.
Even though it has only been seven weeks, when I look forward to the rest of 2013 I feel huge amounts of open space and time in front of me. I know this has helped me come out of the depression, which I just wrote about in an article in Inc. Magazine, that I struggled with for the first part of this year.
But it’s more profound than that. In a few short months, I’ve changed my work pattern a lot. I feel so much more rested and alert. When I’m doing something, I’m in the moment. The companies I’m an investor in are all over the place, but I feel like they are actually getting more of my attention because I’m not being torn in a zillion different directions.
I don’t feel like I’m constantly trying to jam in the “work” around all the friction time – in airports, in taxis and cars being driven to things, before I head out to yet another dinner on the road, or late in my hotel before I go to sleep. My environment is familiar and comfortable and things just flow.
I’m mastering video conferencing – I’ve now got every configuration a human could need. I figured out three big things that solve for 99% of the strangeness of it.
- Make your video conference full screen – don’t have ANYTHING else going on your computer other than what is in the meeting.
- Use a BIG monitor – seeing heads that are normal size makes a huge difference.
- Make sure your audio and video are on channels with enough bandwidth. Shift to a conference call for audio while keeping video up if you are having performance issues.
I’ve also started using my Mezzanine video conferencing system extensively – it’s just incredible. More on that in a separate post.
I love Boulder and I’m finding myself running a lot again. It’s hard to run as much as I’d like when I’m on the road – early morning meetings, fatigue, and being in random places gets in the way. But here, I just put on my shoes and head out the door for one of my favorite trails. With or without Brooks the wonder dog.
On that note, I think I’ll go for a run right now.
Over the weekend, Kwin Kramer, the CEO of Oblong, wrote a great essay on TechCrunch titled Hey Kids, Get Off My Lawn: The Once And Future Visual Programming Environment. He starts off with a great Mark Twain quote.
“When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.”
Mark Twain, ”Old Times on the Mississippi”
Atlantic Monthly, 1874
This describes my continuous interaction with the computer industry. I was 14 once, then 21, and now 46. It’s remarkable to me to reflect on how far things have come since I wrote my first program on APL on an IBM mainframe (no idea what kind) in the basement of a Frito-Lay datacenter in Dallas at age 12. Then there are moments where I can’t believe that we are just now discovering things – again – that were figured out 30 years ago. And last night, while laying in bed in a hotel in Iceland and reading the wikipedia page on Iceland on my iPad, I kept thinking “what’s old is new again.”
Kwin nails it in his essay. Oblong, which is one of the most amazing and unique companies I’ve ever been involved in, is constantly dealing with the constraints of today while working a decade into the future. A year ago the present caught up with the future and their first product, Mezzanine, came to life.
I love working with companies where the CEO still writes code and uses his perspective on the past to inform the product, but isn’t afraid to completely leap over the current constraints to create something entirely new, amazing, and delightful.