Collaboration in the Digital Age with John Underkoffler, CEO of Oblong Industries

Play episode

Or listen on your favorite podcast app

Apple Podcasts Google Podcasts / Spotify

“I think that done properly, collaboration will come to be understood not just as an application or an app that you boot up for those five minutes when you need to use it, but a fundamental property of computation itself.” — John Underkoffler

John Underkoffler, CEO of Oblong Industries, has developed a new way to share ideas online with the Mezzanine platform, Oblong’s flagship product suite that is effectively the world’s first multi-user computer. Mezzanine allows for multi-content, multi-stream, and multi-user experiences, or as John likes to describe it, “getting visual ideas out of people’s individual devices and onto a screen where everyone can see them.”

Currently, Mezzanine is built for enterprise-level companies, but Oblong is not stopping there. They’ve developed a virtual version of Mezzanine called Rumpus built specifically for remote teams all over the world to collaborate on work projects more effectively. Communication is no longer an issue with Mezzanine and Rumpus, where your ideas are easily shared visually and not limited to the written word.

“Cognitive empathy is what Mezzanine and Rumpus is really trying to get at,” says John.

As Chad points out in the episode, “how many relationships have we lost because of flawed communication?” Language has its limitations. Mezzanine and Rumpus are making it easy to visually share ideas in real-time with multiple users. What could be possible for humanity if we all understood each other better?

Many of John’s ideas were brought to life in the film, Minority Report, where he helped craft a vision for what technology would look like in 2054. The movie showed “how powerful UI itself can be,” says John. “UI as an extension of human cognition and human teamwork.”

On this episode, Chad and John discuss his upbringing from learning to code to his experience in K-12 education, what cultural and economic factors are affecting innovation today, and John’s thoughts on how technology can propel humanity forward.

Quotes from John:

“Mezzanine is a compact, manifestation of one of Oblong’s core philosophies around the future of work and around what’s holding us back. That piece in particular is about collaboration, the recognition that every computer you’ve ever used is too personal. Every computer you’ve ever used is for one person at a time and one person only. So Mezzanine is effectively the world’s first multi-user computer.”

[On his experience in K-12 education] “With regard to the early computation, early digital machine piece of the puzzle, it was also that moment when you started to realize that you could build things on those machines that plugged into your interests, as long as they were on the STEM side.”

“What I see, frankly is a kind of disturbing trend around a fetishization of really abstract technology. But the more weird and abstract and kind of fundamentally incomprehensible, such as bitcoin and AI, the more people seem to get excited about it. We’ve sort of fetishized some of the technologies that are not directly knowable and reachable. But why are we so excited about these techniques that basically take more and more responsibility and agency away from us?”

[On the Minority Report] “It asks more than it answers about free will, about the role of technology in politics and how does all of this stuff operate in a society that wants to be vital?”


MIT Media Labs

A Possible Declining Trend for Worldwide Innovation

Michael Crichton

Philip K. Dick


Episode 312