The best way to describe Oblong Industries’ Mezzanine solution is to take you back to where you first will have seen it – albeit in another form entirely.
Film fans willing to cast their minds back to Stephen Spielberg’s 2002 film (yes, really) Minority Report will remember a dystopian vision of 2054, where Tom Cruise grapples with PreCrime, precogs and dubious eye surgery techniques.
One of the things that sticks in the mind most, however, is the futuristic vision presented to viewers, with Spielberg determined to present a plausible future reality.
Plausible is what he got, as skip forward to 2014 and the gestural screen technology seen in the film has become a reality, although used for impressive interactive conferencing solutions rather than to prevent future murders.
John Underkoffler, now Oblong’s CEO, was appointed by Spielberg as the science and technology advisor for the film; the director stressed that it would be difficult to identify with anything that had no grounding in reality.
Commercial Integrator Europe (CIE) was recently invited to Oblong’s UK HQ to witness just how real this technology is, where today the company sells commercial versions of the Minority Report computers.
“Mezzanine has only been available for the last couple of years,” says Stephen Smith, sales director at Oblong Industries Inc. “Our first work was for the R&D team at a global firm and built directly on our g-speak technology platform with a glove-based system similar to Minority Report. Then we started getting requests for custom, bespoke systems accessible to more groups across the organisation. The customers wanted the system but for a conference room scenario; they wanted to be able to bring in all these different data streams and interactive properties in more of a mainstream way for day-to-day business functions.”
What was immediately clear to Oblong was that this was never going to work if the company used optical based tracking and glove-based systems.
“Optical tracking is very expensive and it is not widespread enough for it to be economically viable,” Stephen explains. “Also it’s difficult to imagine co-workers trading tracking gloves in an office environment.”
“When John finished Minority Report the intention wasn’t to start a company producing that kind of technology,” Stephen reflects. “The truth of the matter was that at that time, the code existed in some form via John’s work, but the reality is that none of that technology existed yet to support the vision. If you think back to 2002-2003, most TVs were great big monitors, and even the cost of the pixels in the room were too expensive to deliver a product like this to mainstream. Plus, the rest of the technology for the optical interface was also very expensive. What we’ve got now is a far more intuitive and sensible way of doing it.”
What is Mezzanine?
Upon entering Oblong’s impressive London office, CIE can’t fail to notice the main room’s focal point – the full Mezzanine system.
At the front of the room are three high definition displays known as ‘the workspace’, designed to encourage an immersive workspace for meetings and conferences.
Immediately to the left of the workspace on the wall are three mounted ‘corkboards’, comprised of further high definition screens used for ‘pinning’ digital images for easy reference during meetings.
Directly behind Stephen is the whiteboard, which interacts with a dedicated camera – capturing snapshots of the whiteboard and saving important notes from a meeting.
Replacing the gloved-based control method are ‘wands’, providing gestural interaction communicated via the ultrasonic array lining the ceiling.
Simplifying the interaction process as much as possible, interacting with Mezzanine only requires a wand-user to master five simple gestures to move data from one screen to another, although there is also the option to use an iPad touch control or a web browser mouse and keyboard control.
In fact, two wands per room can provide users simultaneous control; while up to 32 devices can be used to control the system if required by the meeting participants.
What can Mezzanine do?
Mezzanine is essentially an application that seeks to provide what traditional conference rooms lack: an effective way to simultaneously engage multiple users (including those working remotely) and their devices and data.
Oblong calls this ‘Infopresence’ – the integration of multiple locations, users, devices and streams of information in a collaborative environment.
Mezzanine links locations and teams together and provides the unique ability to allow external team members to bring their devices and data together in a shared visual space.
Bolstering its appeal further is the fact that every participant in a Mezzanine session – whether local or remote – can display information to aid the decision-making process, effectively sharing in real-time.
“We want to elevate the customer experience,” Stephen explains. “We want to make meeting and working more efficient and to put the work back into the meeting room. With Mezzanine, users can share what is on each person’s laptop from their devices instead of something being compiled onto one PowerPoint. It’s an easier way to work.”
The operating system
Behind the Mezzanine application is the operating system, g-speak. Oblong’s core technology platform, g-speak enables the development of multi-user, multi-screen, multi-device, spatial networked applications.
“g-speak is incredibly flexible,” says Stephen. “It has the potential to interact with and work with any technology in a spatial way. For example, you can grab a design from one screen and throw it to the printer located in the corner of the room – and it prints out!”
Oblong reports that g-speak technology has swiftly begun to gain traction and not just for conferencing and meeting solutions.
“IBM used our g-speak technology at the new IBM Watson experience centre which opened last month in New York. The experience there starts with expansive microtile wall, an impressive immersion room and ultimately a series of Mezzanine rooms for client collaboration. All of these multi-surface spaces are gesture-enabled and you’ll see our wands in action moving content throughout the space.”
Indeed, over 30 major international firms have invested in Mezzanine during the past two years alone – whilst several advertising agencies are showing considerable interest in utilising the technology to collaborate visually across the organisation in building an entire creative campaign or pitch for clients.
“If I take Beats Music as an example – who are a customer – when they wanted to pitch to their new artists they would take images and parts from their websites and they would talk it through using Mezzanine to demonstrate,” Stephen recalls. “So they used it as a sales tool and it very much grabbed the attention.”
How does the installer fit in?
Mezzanine is available in the UK for installation as part of a whole room video conferencing solution by professional installers.
The hardware element is specified, selected and installed by the installation company; however it’s recommended that the Mezzanine software that runs the g-speak technology is installed by Oblong onto the company’s IT infrastructure, but that too can be fitted by the installer if they are correctly trained.
“Essentially what you get from us is a whiteboard camera, the ultrasonic tracking system and the appliance: the screens, the video codecs,” Stephen says, gesturing to the hardware around the room.
“That’s all just standard stuff – and the installer/client gets to specify that. You can dictate your own codec – if you have an existing edge-blended projector wall we will work with that; if you want to put new NEC screens, you can.
“I have seven install UK partners that we are working with and one of them can develop bespoke systems themselves. Once your room is ready to go, our average install time is from three to five days. It depends how much work there is beforehand if we can meet the schedule – we have to consider if the company needs to strengthen the walls or re-paint everything, for instance.”
It can be adapted, too – a single screen version can be driven by an iPad rather than via the wand. It does everything the Mezzanine does but with less screens.
“In the new software release, rather than this three by one layout, which is essentially three 1080p screens, you can go two by two, which is the equivalent of a 4K,” says Stephen. “So we can drive one massive 4K screen and you can get a lot of content on that screen very clearly on a really big format.”
Naturally, customised layouts are covered as well. “Anything is possible, it’s only the matter of us understanding what the customer wants to do and for the customer to be willing to pay for those special features,” Stephen advises.
Is it easy to use?
This is a question that must have been on the lips of all who have passed through Oblong’s London experience centre.
Mezzanine is certainly impressive to behold, but one can’t help but wonder if the gestures and interactive features are easy to learn.
Right on cue, Stephen promptly passes the wand into CIE’s inexperienced hands and demonstrates its usability. By trying a combination of holding the wand in a vertical position, clicking the button, pulling towards, pushing away and rotating, CIE is able to drag and drop high resolution images from one screen to the next, zoom in and crop visual data, view videos and access its conferencing features.
“We deliver several hours of training to the user,” Stephen clarifies. “It’s kind of a train the trainer approach. Here in Europe it’s much more about our channel and more about allowing our channel to deliver these services either as part of the installation or as a value add to their way of doing things.
“I can show someone how this system can break them free of traditional ways of content sharing via a VGA cable on a projector and I can show them how I can break them free of standard presentations and collaborations, but it’s up to them to take that first step. Training is the first step; once you know how to use it you have got to be willing to look at how you can take advantage of it.
“What we usually do with customers before they buy it is that we ask them: what is your use case? How are you going to use it? What is it going to make better about your business?”
The future of Mezzanine and g-speak
Although relatively new to the UK, so far it seems that the sky is the limit for the adoption of the technology.
Foreseeing an enthusiastic demand for the product, Oblong is going to be forming a customer advisory board with the intention to be somewhat steered by what they have to say.
Forever perfectionists, Oblong has already put plans in place to make the front area of Mezzanine a lot more customisable, so a user can have any number of pixels – as big and as grand as they want.
The corkboards will eventually become an extension of the windshield, allowing a user to run multiple sources of video on this section as well as on the workspace.
“We are constantly looking to improve the quality – we are going to add B2B capability. We’ve already taken a leap on certain existing technologies – we’re 256-bit encrypted in terms of communication today already between Mezzanines, whereas existing videoconferencing is only 128.”
When asked where the technology could go, Stephen pauses and says: “I think g-speak is going to become the Android of the conference room. It is a platform that understands three dimensions and is a platform that can be developed to create any number of applications.
“Mezzanine is a phenomenal application and its capability to run conferencing and collaboration sessions is just going to grow and grow. The underlying technology, g-speak is where the true excitement will lie long term.”
TV fans may not have to wait too long to see the interactive technology portrayed onscreen again, as 20th Century Fox has acquired Steven Spielberg‘s small-screen adaptation of Minority Report with a view to creating a TV series set 10 years after the film finished.
“There’s a huge buzz about a new Minority Report TV series. It wouldn’t be Mezzanine that would function there because it is already available today; it would be the spirit of our initial vision – the ability to interact more seamlessly between real and digital space. Spielberg is rumoured to be involved,” Stephen smiles.