The mind-blowing 2002 Steven Spielberg sci-fi thriller Minority Report, which starred Tom Cruise and was based on the book by Philip K. Dick, thrilled general audiences with its central premise—that sedated clairvoyant siblings connected to a recording device could predict murders before they happened, enabling “pre-crime” police to arrest perpetrators before they committed their crimes.
Computer geeks, however—people like you and me—were floored by the police department’s computer system. As this annotated clip from the movie shows, the fictional system seamlessly combined voice commands, video conferencing, in-the-air gesture control and the easy transfer of content from one system to another.
More to the point, the movie depicted a post-WIMP future (WIMP stands for windows, icons, menus and pointing devices)—no keyboards, no mice, no obvious applications.
The interface thrilled technology nerds because anyone who studies user interface developments knows all these components are not only possible, but were at the time being actively worked on by various research labs and user interface designers.
One of these designers—in fact, the main person responsible for the Minority Report UI—is John Underkoffler, who worked as the main science and technology adviser for the film. He also created fictional technology in Iron Man, The Hulk and other movies.
Underkoffler gave a popular TED Talk in February 2010 where he not only talked about a Minority Report-like user interface, but demonstrated it live.
So the fictional Minority Report user interface hit the silver screen 13 years ago. The real thing was demonstrated on the TED Talk stage five years ago.
When can we get our hands on this thing?
You can have it now—if you or your company has the money to splurge.
Enter Oblong Industries
Underkoffler, it turns out, doesn’t just fictionalize and demonstrate Minority Report-style technology. He designs, builds and sells them as the CEO of Oblong Industries.
I spoke to Underkoffler recently. He told me that for the movie, the entire conception of this interface of the future was realism: “There was nothing that we did … that was solely for the purpose of looking good on screen.” In fact, the vision for the movie—which he worked on for an entire year—was based on work he and his colleagues had been doing for 15 years at MIT’s Media Lab.
“The basic proposition that I brought to the film—that this would be a gestural interface, there’d be pixels everywhere—is inherently cinematic,” Underkoffler said. He and his team used the movie depiction as a “prototype for a real-world UI.”
In 2006, Underkoffler and his partner Kwindla Kramer—who left the company two years ago—founded Oblong to turn that prototype into a product called Mezzanine. Their customers include the U.S. government, IBM, Boeing, Hitachi and even Beats Music. (Underkoffler says he has no idea whether the Beats team continues to use Mezzanine since Beats was acquired by Apple.)
To the best of my knowledge, nobody is using Mezzanine to solve pre-crime. But the core concepts are clearly demonstrated in Minority Report, the movie.
The Mezzanine platform runs on Ubuntu, and its purpose is to enable collaborative work environments. A Mezzanine-powered conference room combines video conferencing, telepresence, multiscreen and multidevice interaction where content flows from one screen to the next—integrating conference room screens, tablets, laptops and smartphones as needed for the human collaboration.
Wii-like spatial wands enable fine control over screens too far away to touch. To use Mezzanine is to be “surrounded by pixels,” as Underkoffler describes the experience—”Pixels everywhere.”
Any item from any screen can be immediately moved to another part of the screen or any other screen in the room, resized, repositioned and integrated into the overall presentation.
If you’re having trouble picturing this, here’s a demonstration.
The Mezzanine system isn’t just a fancy video conferencing and collaborative work environment. It reconnects collaborators who have been separated on a technology level by the remote worker and BYOD trends.
And that’s really one of the biggest challenges Mezzanine overcomes—creating a system of universal interoperability. “There are certainly … technical challenges” to that, Underkoffler told me, but also “political and fiscal challenges” because operating system companies benefit from keeping data within their own ecosystem, rather than promoting universal interoperability. So Oblong has to overcome the barriers to seamlessness.
Underkoffler believes hardware-based Moore’s Law will be overtaken by advancements in interface design as the main driver of improvement for computer systems.
I hope he’s right.
But I’m still counting on Moore and his law to bring down the cost of Mezzanine-like next-generation user interfaces so they can be installed in individual offices and, eventually, in homes.
In the meantime, it’s amazing to consider that you can buy a conference room system that can be traced directly back to the movie Minority Report—an interface from the past depicting the future available now.