“Minority Report” in the Office: Oblong’s Long Road Back to Boston

3/6/13Follow @curtwoodward

One of the newest tech companies setting up shop in Boston has taken a pretty unusual route to get here: from the MIT Media Lab to big Hollywood studios and back again.

We’re talking about Oblong Industries, a venture-backed company that makes software for controlling computer displays by waving your hands in the air.

With the aid of special gloves or a wand-like remote control, Oblong’s system detects a person’s motion and allows him or her to “grab” an application window, image, or other digital item and move it around—from one digital screen to the next, down to a tabletop, over to a screen on a different wall, and so on.

If that sounds like something from “Minority Report,” the Tom Cruise movie remembered for its depiction of futuristic technology, there’s a good reason. The company’s co-founder and chief scientist, John Underkoffler, was a key advisor who helped director Steven Spielberg create the memorable no-touch user interface that was being used in the movie’s imagined world, circa 2054.

After spending a couple of years working on that project, including the development of a detailed user manual that helped guide Cruise’s gestures as he pretended to use the system, Underkoffler had the foundations of something that could be built in the real world.

“Now we’ve done it, long before 2054,” says Carlton Sparrell, Oblong’s Boston-based product development vice president.

The company, which has since racked up about $30 million in financing from Foundry Group, Morgan Stanley Alternative Investment Partners, and Energy Technology Ventures, started out building custom software applications for specific clients.

One of those early customers was Boeing, which wanted the ability to rewind and fast-forward through simulated battles for its defense clients. That kind of work brought early revenues and also served as a kind of product R&D, Sparrell says, allowing Oblong’s team to see what kinds of features clients wanted in a motion-based interface.

The result is Mezzanine, the company’s year-old commercial product for business customers. Built on top of Oblong’s g-speak technology platform, Mezzanine combines Oblong’s custom software with an ultrasonic positioning network and a motion-sensing “wand” remote, which operates like a souped-up Nintendo Wii controller.

The result, when patched into a video calling system and a series of big wall monitors, is perhaps the most advanced conference room system around.

Up to eight tablets, phones, and computers can be connected to the Mezzanine system. The applications, images, and websites being shown on each device can be pushed up to a bank of TV-sized wall monitors, and moved around with an application, or by using the wand remote.

It’s the kind of thing you have to see in action. I don’t usually like product videos, but the one found here gives you a few glimpses of what the system can do. I saw it in action yesterday, and (at least in Oblong’s offices) it worked as depicted. Four locations can be connected at once in the system.

Which brings us back to Oblong’s presence in Boston. Sparrell, another MIT Media Lab alum, has been working in the Boston area for Oblong for about four years. But he’s essentially been the company’s only permanent person in the area, and that meant a lot of long flights out to Los Angeles, where Oblong set up shop. (Underkoffler’s experience with “Minority Report” led to other movie consulting gigs.)

“I was commuting across the country to develop telepresence software,” Sparrell notes with a laugh.

That’s changed now that Oblong has moved into a spacious office in the Fort Point Channel area of Boston. There are currently about five people working there day-to-day, including regional sales manager Joe Howard.

The space is kitted out with a full-fledged Mezzanine demo conference room: Three big monitors side-by-side on the front wall, two “corkboard” monitors attached lengthwise on the right-hand wall, allowing photos or other elements from a presentation to be “grabbed” and set aside for later, and a videoconferencing system. We called Oblong’s L.A. office when I stopped by, and spent time sharing apps and screenshots between the two locations.

Oblong plans to add more employees in Boston as business ramps up—IBM and SAP are already customers, and Oblong says it’s seeing interest from industries like insurance, marketing, and advertising, along with the big-business, boardroom-heavy companies you’d traditionally expect to spring for such a service.

It will obviously take some time for systems like Oblong’s to build a functional network that allows a substantial slice of meetings to be conducted with hands and motion-sensing wands. But it’s possible now, thanks to some big brains from Cambridge and big imaginations in Hollywood.

Curt Woodward is a senior editor for Xconomy based in Boston. Email: cwoodward@xconomy.com Follow @curtwoodward

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