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.
Last week at our Yesware board meeting, we talked about the idea of “the monastic startup.” This was a phrase that Matthew Bellows, Yesware’s CEO, came up with, and it characterizes the culture they are creating at Yesware. It embodies two concepts:
The monastic startup is a place where engineers do the best work of their lives. This place involves work with long stretches of uninterrupted time.
This idea sung to me. As I sit here in front of my 30″ monitor, working away in the peacefulness of my office in Boulder, surrounded by 10 of my favorite people (the gang I work with), listening to Lady Gaga, and connected to thousands of others via the computer in front of me, I realize that I long for more “monastic startup” time.
When I think about the culture of many of the companies we are an investor in, the definition of the monastic startup rings true. Oblong immediately comes to mind for me. Kwin Kramer, Oblong’s CEO, wrote an awesome guest post on TechCrunch over the weekend titled The Next, Next Thing. Oblong is one of the most monastic startups I’ve every encountered (using the definition above) – even Kwin and his partner John Underkoffler still spend long stretches of time writing code as they do the best work of their lives.
In my networked world (vs. hierarchical world) a monastic approach works amazingly well. I’ve started experimenting with more non-in person tools to increase the quality of communication across my network, while preserving a level of “monasticness.” The Yesware guys use HipChat for persistent chat. I’m looking for others – suggestions? I’m especially interested in things that work well across organization and communities.
If the phrase “monastic startup” rings true to you, what are the other characteristics that you’d expect to have in this environment? And what tools would you use?
I believe that science fiction is reality catching up to the future. Others say that science fact is the science fiction of the past. Regardless, the gap between science fact and science fiction is fascinating to me, especially as it applies to computers.
My partners and I spend time at CES each year along with a bunch of the founders from different companies we’ve invested in due to our human computer interaction theme. In addition to a great way to start the year together, it gives us a chance to observe how the broad technology industry, especially on the consumer electronics side, is trying to catch up to the future.
We are investors in Oblong, a company who’s co-founder (John Underkoffler) envisions much of the future we are currently experiencing when he created the science and tech behind the movie Minority Report. Oblong’s CEO, Kwin Kramer, wandered the floor of CES with this lens on and had some great observations which he shares with you below.
Looking back at last year’s CES through the greasy lens of this year’s visit to Vegas, three trends have accelerated: tablets, television apps platforms, and new kinds of input.
I gloss these as “Apple’s influence continuing to broaden”, “a shift from devices to ecosystems,” and “the death of the remote control.”
Really, the first two trends have merged together. The iPod, iPhone, and iPad, along with iTunes, AirPlay, and FaceTime, have profoundly influenced our collective expectations.
All of the television manufacturers are now showing “smart” TV prototypes. “Smart” means some combination of apps, content purchases, video streaming, video conferencing, web browsing, new remote controls, control from phones and tablets, moving content around between devices, screen sharing between devices, home “cloud”, face recognition, voice control, and gestural input.
Samsung showed the most complete bundle of “smart” features at the show this year and is planning to ship a new flagship television line that boasts both voice and gesture recognition.
This is good stuff. The overall interaction experience may or may not be ready for the mythical “average user”, but the features work. (An analogy: talking and waving at these TVs feels like using a first-generation PalmPilot, not a first-generation iPhone. But the PalmPilot was a hugely successful and category changing product.)
The Samsung TVs use a two-dimensional camera, not a depth sensor. As a result, gestural navigation is built entirely around hand motion in X and Y and open-hand/grab transitions. The tracking volume is roughly the 30 degree field of view of the camera between eight feet and fifteen feet from the display.
Stepping back and filtering out the general CES clamor, what we’re seeing is the continuing, but still slow, coming to pass of the technology premises on which we founded Oblong: pixels available in more and more form factors, always-on network connections to a profusion of computing devices, and sensors that make it possible to build radically better input modalities.
Interestingly, there are actually fewer gestural input demos on display at CES this year than there were last year. Toshiba, Panasonic and Sony, for example, weren’t showing gesture control of TVs. But it’s safe to assume that all of these companies continue to do R&D into gestural input in particular, and new user experiences in general.
PrimeSense has made good progress, too. They’ve taken an open-hand/grab approach that’s broadly similar to Samsung’s, but with good use of the Z dimension in addition. The selection transitions, along with push, pull and inertial side-scroll, feel solid.
Besides the television, the other interesting locus of new UI design at CES is the car dashboard. Mercedes showed off a new in-car interface driven partly by free-space gestures. And Ford, Kia, Cadillac, Mercedes and Audi all have really nice products and prototypes and employ passionate HMI people.
For those of us who pay a lot of attention to sensors, the automotive market is always interesting. Historically, adoption in cars has been one important way that new hardware gets to mass-market economies of scale.
The general consumer imaging market continues to amaze me, though. Year-over-year progress in resolution, frame rate, dynamic range and cost continues unabated.
JVC is showing a 4k video camera that will retail for $5,000. And the new cameras (and lenses) from Nikon and Canon are stunning. There’s no such thing anymore as “professional” equipment in music production, photography or film. You can charge all the gear you need for recording an album, or making a feature-length film, on a credit card.
Similarly, the energy around the MakerBot booth was incredibly fun to see. Fab and prototyping capabilities are clearly on the same downward-sloping, creativity-enabling, curve as cameras and studio gear. I want a replicator!
And, of course, I should say that Oblong is hiring. We think the evolution of the multi-device, multi-screen, multi-user future is amazingly interesting. We’re helping to invent that future and we’re always looking for hackers, program managers, and experienced engineering leads.
As investors, we believe that the way we interact with computer technology will be radically different 20 years from now. We’ve got a few new investments in our human computer interaction theme that we are in the process of closing so HCI has been on my mind lately.
I just watched a great video from our first HCI investment, Oblong. It’s a 30 minute presentation by Mary Ann de Lares Norris, the Managing Director of Oblong Europe, that is an excellent overview of Oblong’s technology.
The first five minutes are an intro to Mary Ann and how she got connected to Oblong. The next five minutes are an overview of Oblong and a high level demo. From there Mary Ann gets into “Pools & Proteins” and starts talking about the architecture and design philosophy of g-speak and how it works.
She then shows an example of how Oblong’s “common operating picture” works in a real logistics application. Using g-speak, she shows the integration of a VT-100 app, Java app, HTML app, a native g-speak app, and a video conferencing session. Mary Ann then finishes up with a sneak peak at some multi-user / device / screen activity.
I’m totally wiped out after a full day in LA that included a board meeting at Oblong, a 75 minute interview on This Week in VC, strange drinks at Volcano Tea with some LA entrepreneurs, another interview on TechZulu before the Launchpad LA event, and then a Launchpad LA event. Mark Suster – who is everywhere on the LA entrepreneurial scene – was my gracious host, interviewer, and master of ceremonies for the day. I predict he sleeps well tonight.
I’ve got nothing left to say since I’ve already said it at least twice today. So – I’ll leave you with the This Week in VC interview.
I’m on a six week rhythm in Seattle for the three boards I’m on up here – Gist, BigDoor, and Impinj. While I don’t have them perfectly synced up, I’m hopeful that I will in 2011. In the mean time, today full of BigDoor and Gist.
It was an absurdly beautiful day in Seattle. When the sun is out, this place shines. The day started out at the new Founders Co-op office where BigDoor is located. It’s about 33% full but that’s going to change next week when TechStars Seattle begins and fills out the place. It’s great space, in a great location (near the new Amazon campus), and is covered with IdeaPaint.
Everything about the BigDoor meeting was great. It was a tight, focused two hours. Since we invested about six weeks ago, over 300 companies have signed up to try BigDoor’s system and I expect 10 will be in full production by the end of the month. If you are looking to add game mechanics to your site, it’s the easiest and fastest way to do it. They’ve just rolled out a new website that explains it, along with a refreshed / simple pricing model that is free up to 100k API calls / month. Oh, and they served sushi for lunch which just rocked.
I got a ride across town to Gist where we spent most of our time on the August and September product rhythms (Gist is now on a monthly product focus – everyone in the company focuses on one specific area of the product and the next two months are filled with goodness.) Gist has also refreshed their site – if you haven’t ever tried it or haven’t looked at it in a while, go give it a shot – it’s grown up nicely.
I’m off to LA for an Oblong board meeting tomorrow and lunch by their amazing in house chef followed by an appearance with Mark Suster on This Week in Venture Capital live at 2pm PST followed by some LaunchPad LA stuff that Mark has pulled together.
All of these companies are doing well so its a fun action packed two days on the east coast. And yes, I’m way over stimulated after a month in Homer with just Amy.
Jason and I were at an Oblong board meeting last week and spent the entire day at the company. It’s grown a lot over the past few months and it was fun to spend time with a number of folks we hadn’t met before. The first Oblong baby was born while we were all eating lunch which resulted in lots of good cheer, karma, and the revelation from another member of the Oblong team that his wife recently found out that she was pregnant.
But the best part was playing with a bunch of the new cool shit that Oblong is working on. It’s one thing to look at what Oblong is building (as in the TED Video below); it’s a whole different experience to actually get your hands on it. Fortunately they are driving hard toward that and we expect a Q3 product release that will start bringing Oblong’s g-speak spatial operating environment to the masses.
“In five years when you buy a computer you’ll get this.” John Underkoffler, Oblong’s Chief Scientist, at 14:20 in the video.
I’ve been friends with John Underkoffler since 1984 and we’ve been investors in Oblong since 2007. Ever since I first met John I knew that he was an amazing thinker. John, his co-founders at Oblong, and the team they have assembled are creating the future of user interfaces. This year has started off incredibly fast for them – they’ve spent the last five months scaling the business as the result of several large customers and are in the home stretch of releasing their first “shrink wrapped product” in Q3. Get ready – the future is closer than you imagine.
If you are a long time reader of this blog, you know that I’m a huge believer that the way we interact with computers in 20 years will be radically different than how we interact with them today. I’ve put my money where my mouth is as Foundry Group has invested in a number of companies around human computer interaction, including Oblong.
For the past few years, every time someone talks about next generation user interfaces, a reference to the movie Minority Report pops up. Sometimes the writer gets this right and links it back to John Underkoffler, the co-founder of Oblong, but many times they don’t. Today the NY Times got it right in their article You, Too, Can Soon Be Like Tom Cruise in ‘Minority Report’.
That’s a picture of John Underkoffler at Ted on Friday giving one of his jaw dropping demos of Oblong’s g-speak spatial operating environment. Lest you think this is science fiction, I can assure you that Oblong has several major customers, is generating meaningful revenue, and is poised to enter several mainstream markets with g-speak derived products.
The company has been steadily building momentum over the past few years since we invested. The TechCrunch article The iPad Is Step 1 In The Future Of Computing. This Is Step 2 (Or 3) gives you a little of the history. More of the history is at Oblong’s post origins: arriving here that go back to 1994. I personally have stories going back to 1984 when I first met John, but we’ll save those for another day.
While there is an amazing amount of interesting stuff suddenly going on around HCI (and we have invested in a few other companies around this), Oblong is shipping step 2 and about to ship step 3 while most are working on step 1. As John likes to say, “the old model of one human, one machine, one mouse, one screen is passe.”
This year at Sundance, Oblong unveiled Tamper. The Tamper application is a gestural interface for cinematic design. It is built on Oblong’s g-speak spatial operating environment and is a fun example of how Oblong’s core technology can be applied to a film editing system.
Tamper is part of the New Frontier on Main exhibit located at 333 Main Street on the lower level. Oblong has set up a channel on YouTube to show some of the various videos that folks at Sundance are making with Tamper.
I love working with these guys – they are mind-bendingly creative.