• Thursday , 21 October 2021

The purpose of computers today is to collaborate

“The purpose of computers today is to collaborate,” said Oblong CEO an acknowledged tech visionary John Underkoffler in his Keynote Presentation to the thought-leading London, conference ‘Connect – age of collaboration’ last month. Why is this important? Underkoffler is not only a pioneer of collaborative technology, he as a recognised expert on the human-machine interface. AV News reports on this ground-breaking event.

Connect – age of collaboration; opening announced with massed drums and Boomwakas played by an audience of conference delegates.

Staged at the Maverick sponsored collaboration event, ‘Connect – age of collaboration’, got off to an inspired start with sound of almost 200 African drums and Boomwaka’s played by a theatre fill of senior figures from the AV and UC communities, supported by representatives of end-user organisations and a small group of musicians.

Maverick Global Vice President John Sidwick introduced the opening session, and keynote speakers TV’s Spencer Kelly and Oblong CEO John Underkoffler. Underkoffler set the tone for the event, saying: “The true function of computers today is collaboration”. The user interface, which Underkoffler described as fundamentally unchained from the days of Xerox Park and the apple Macintosh, makes little use of human dexterity, physiology and multi-tasking capability.

Oblong was founded in 2006 with the goal of delivering a better human-computer interface. He explains: “We are a company of designers, programmers, hardware engineers, and problem-solvers, applying human-centred design principles to a full stack approach of technology development. We are working on the most interesting thing we can think of, which is how to make computers more flexible, capable, useful, interactive, and empowering for humans working together on the advancement of business, government, education, and culture.”

Underkoffler’s background embraces work as a pioneering researcher into spatial computing at the MIT Media Lab.  He was plucked from academia by Hollywood’s A-list to envision the future of human-computer interface for films such as Minority Report, The Hulk, and Iron Man. Through these films his work has been amplified and influential to a generation of developers, earning him a National Design Award in 2015 and more than 1.5 million views for his TED Talk. Oblong’s computing systems are, famously, gestural systems. But they do much more than simply allow users to point and gesture to interact with computers. (And, in fact, gestures themselves are optional.) These are spatial, networked, multi-user, multi-screen, multi-device, multi-location computing environments.


New interfaces

At a recent TED event Underkoffler explained the principles underlying his work:

“Oblong’s core technology platform is called g-speak™. It enables applications to be developed that run across multiple screens and multiple devices. Our customers use g-speak to solve big data problems, to collaborate more effectively, and to go from viewing pixels on a single screen to interacting with pixels on every screen.”

“We transform computing from a one-person, one-screen, one-device experience to a fully shared and interactive experience. We’re the only company that brings together all your screens, streams, and devices into a unified environment. We’re also the only company to combine data presentation and analytics capabilities with collaboration capabilities, enabling you to turn big data into insight and intelligence. We’re also the company that coined the term Infopresence.”

“Our flagship product is called Mezzanine™. It brings data sets, workspaces, and communication channels to life across multiple screens in multiple locations. It allows interaction from a number and type of input devices simultaneously, including touch screens, phones, and tablets. It frees users from sitting in one place, tied to one device, and enables the free flow of teamwork where collaborators can access, share and control content on a fluid visual canvas all at once. Mezzanine scales up to support the most immersive and commanding innovation centres; across to link labs, conference spaces, and situation rooms; and down for the smallest work groups.”


Workshops and plenary sessions

The keynote sessions were followed by a programme of high-end workshop and plenary sessions, using the technologies under discussion. Of those attended by AV News, special congratulations go to innovation to Peter Otto, Director Product Strategy & Design at Condeco for his presentation: “Ignition points – Creating a workplace and culture that fosters creativity and innovation.”

Otto explained that, in an age when “creativity is the new productivity”, the working environment is as important as the technology. Firms have always had concerns about the efficient use of their offices, and for good reason. After staff, real estate is their most expensive and valuable asset. Twenty or more years ago, before the Internet began to unravel the bonds that tied us full time to the workplace, this was a fairly straightforward issue. Up until the mid-1990s, most people had fixed hours in one place of work and a dedicated workstation, the size of which was often determined by their status within the organisation rather than anything else. Even those workers who spent large amounts of time away from the office usually had their own desk to call home.

In the mid-1900s, that started to change. Not only did the uptake of the Internet and the adoption of mobile phones and laptops allow staff to work from anywhere, there was growing awareness of exactly how they used space within the office itself. Pioneers such as Frank Duffy and his firm DEGW began to measure how much time people spent at their desks over the course of the day and began to posit alternatives to dedicated workstations.

For the first time, the workplace was seen as a cluster of settings through which people moved depending on what they were doing. As a result the office was treated as the stage rather than the play. New desk sharing practices such as hot desking, hoteling were increasingly adopted and in their wake trailed new conceptions of the office as a club, which people visited, booked and used as they would a public space.

A quarter of a century on, such radical ideas are now mainstream, and we not only enjoy nearly three decades of accumulated wisdom and sophistication but also now have the tools to measure and manage the way we use the workplace in real time. This not only helps firms to keep down costs and better manage their real estate it also creates workplaces that are better able to serve the people that use them and adapt to new technologies and working practices.


Meeting culture

For those with businesses relying on a more traditional office culture, the presentation by Lieven Bertier, Director GTM Strategy & Services at Barco, came to the startling conclusion – for the creators of ClickShare and WePresent – that there are just too many meetings.

Barco is engaged in a major survey of end-users to be published next month. Ironically, this new survey reveals that 75% od

According to Barco, that’s because: “The workplace as we once knew it – the place where you go to work – has undergone a major change in the last decade. The large office buildings with floor upon floor of desk-bound workers, have been upgraded to colourful creative spaces and bespoke furniture, designed around specific employee tasks – the physical buildings now set-out to foster collaboration or concentration at any time of the day.”

“And actually, there’s more… Coffee shops, trains, departure lounges, kitchen tables at home. Your desk space is no longer confined to those large office buildings. It has moved, into the wild world out here. The mobile worker is on the rise, which only increases the need for collaboration devices, connected offices and unified communications technology.”

“Opening up the workplace to an ‘always on’ virtual space, challenges your workplace strategy as a business. To help your employees with this kind of seamless collaboration no matter where their workplace is, you need to come up with a strategy that meets your business. A reduction of desks, as ‘pods of people’ give way to huddle spaces perhaps? Whatever you decide, consider a balance of collaboration and quiet. Check our report for more inspiration in setting the scene for your workplace.”

In the future, survey respondents expect to see an increase in video conference software, collaboration apps and collaboration through virtual reality. Face-to-face, telephone and email are expected to decline.


Growth indicators

For an overview of “What business wants: the trends driving collaboration”, Sean Wargo, Snr. Director Market Intelligence at AVIXA, focussing on the shift of conferencing and collaboration to the cloud. Wargo argues that the current demand is fuelled by the availability of affordable video conferencing endpoints. Demand, in turn, for these endpoints is driven by the upturn in collaborative services and solutions. The value of these services will top $1.6 billion by 2023.

We also sat in on two Microsoft presentations – a little disappointing, with no Hub 2 until what sounded like ISE 2019 – but, in order, to get this issue to press on time we were only able to attend just about half of Connect.  With much more to follow in future, including further integration of Windows and Azur, Microsoft’s IoT platform, AI, VR and voice recognition, “Connect” is an event that easily justifies its place in the calendar for the foreseeable future.

There is always a question with any technology event about longevity – is it just a flash in a pan? Our feeling is that this is one that could run-and-run, embracing as it does, changes in the nature of work, the concept of productivity, the nature of the workplace and the social impact of work – life integration. Well done those who took part, Spencer Kelly, John Underkoffler, Maverick, its sponsors and all those in pink shirts on the day for launching a brave approach to a much-needed event.

TV’s Spencer Kelly moderates the Q&A after the Keynote Address by Oblong CEO John Underkoffler.
Maverick’s Jon Sidwick, Joel Chimoindes and Jane Hammersley prepare to open the ‘Connect – age of collaboration’ event at London’s Design Museum.

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