Today on This Week in Startups, Oblong Industries CEO Kwindla Kramer joined the program to discuss the future of computing interfaces. Oblong is the company that provided technology to the film Minority Report, and Kwindla discussed his thoughts on when these new ways of interacting with our devices will be coming to the masses.
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Hey everybody, hey everybody, this week on This Week in Startups, Kwindla Kramer is here from Oblong Industries. They’re doing tremendous work in the interface space. It’s really fascinating stuff. Stick with us.
Hey everybody, hey everybody welcome to This Week in Startups, the program where we talk about startup companies, entrepreneurship, products that change the world, hopefully, or at least try. I’m your host, Jason Calacanis. I’ve been doing this for 289 episodes, and boy am I tired. No I’m not! I’m inspired. We have great, great founders and entrepreneurs on this program every week showing us where the world is headed.
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Today on the program, Kwindla, or Kwin, as he likes to go by–or as he goes by–Kramer, the Founder of Oblong Industries… welcome to the program.
Kwindla Kramer: Thank you, it’s nice to be here. I’ve been a big fan of your work since the last millenium, so I’m thrilled to be on the show.
Jason Calacanis: Oh, wow! Last millenium, wow! You’re a Silicon Alley Reporter fan or something?
Kwindla Kramer: Yeah, exactly.
Jason Calacanis: Wow, old school. You know, it’s interesting, I meet so many people who I guess were 10 years old when Silicon Alley Reporter was being read by old guys like us.
Kwindla Kramer: I’m a little older than that, yeah.
Jason Calacanis: If you were 25 years old in the industry when I did that, I guess that was 95, 96, 97…
Kwindla Kramer: Yeah.
Jason Calacanis: You would be 10 years old at the time. Ummm, I don’t even bring it up, but tell me about Oblong Industries, why did you start it?
Kwindla Kramer: Sure, well, we started Oblong to put a new interface on every computer screen in the world. Our thesis is, that with the evolution of device form-factors, and screens and screen sizes, the way we look at computers today, where we look at one screen at a time, is gonna change, and we want to make that change happen.
Jason Calacanis: And we have some video of this, correct, can we play a video of this?
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Jason Calacanis: So we saw a lot of different applications, there, amongst those, maybe you could walk us through some of them, and what you think. Cause we’ve seen these interfaces in Minority Report, or I guess Jeff Han did a lot of work on this early in the day. We saw a Ted Talk, whenever that was, six or seven years ago. Clearly this idea has been out there for awhile, so what’s the application now, and is this stuff gonna become reality, or is it just relegated to the gaming community.
Kwindla Kramer: Sure, yeah, well we sell real systems to big data, early adopter, large companies, now, and we have since we started the company in 2006. And we have a product, a broad-market product for corporate conference rooms, that takes the multi-screen, multi-user, multi-device worldview that we have, and make it available in any business context, anywhere in the world.
So, this stuff is real, and it’s getting more real.
Jason Calacanis: So big data is one application, and conference room meetings is the other–right now.
Kwindla Kramer: That’s true right now. And I think that as device costs come down–of things like the xBox connect sensor–we’re gonna be able to embed these interfaces in more and more contexts. And, what we believe at Oblong is this is the way you’re gonna use a computer in 10 years, no matter what you’re doing, no matter what the hardware is that you’re interacting with, you’re gonna use a spatial, gestural, multi-screen, multi-deviced, networked user interface.
Jason Calacanis: Now, we keep getting these promises of.. new interfaces are coming. And we’ve had this since the PC era, right, in the 80s, ever since the mouse came out, people are saying, “Hey, the interface is gonna advance by leaps and bounds.” It seems to move much slower than, say, the pundits, give it credit for. I mean, what was the leap after the mouse? The trackball? Why is the evolution of interface so slow?
Kwindla Kramer: We agree with that, and part of our motivation for founding the company was the fact that we felt like it had been 25 years since the Macintosh made the graphical user interface kinda safe for broad-market computing… and it was time for a change.
But, you know, big things happen in user interfaces, and we believe the interface is the computer. So, big things happen in how you use computers when the enabling technology underpinnings evolve. And what we see happening is that the pixels getting much cheaper and device form-factors evolving is what forces the next interface to become… to come into being, to get birthed.
Jason Calacanis: What do you mean by pixels becoming cheaper? You mean screen resolution? Or you just mean the overall power of the computer?
Kwindla Kramer: So you probably have a 42” or a 52” or a 55” display in your living room.
Jason Calacanis: Sure.
Kwindla Kramer: And, five years ago, nobody had one.
Jason Calacanis: Sure.
Kwindla Kramer: And we walk in to the kind of conference rooms we target with our conferencing product, and there’s one or two displays in every one of those meeting rooms now. Five years ago at those companies if you wanted a display for a meeting in a conference room, you had to call IT and get them to deliver you a projector, and they’d take the projector away at the end of the meeting.
Jason Calacanis: So the dramatic drop in the price of flat panels, is a big driver here.
Kwindla Kramer: And, at every size. And at more and more dense resolutions. So you big screens, and you have screens embedded in things you carry around in your hand and your pocket. I have more pixels on my body when I walk out of my house to get in the car to drive to work than I had in the whole research lab at MIT that I was part of probably, right?
Jason Calacanis: Yeah, I mean, if you’ve got a retina display on your iPad 3, and…
Kwindla Kramer: Yeah.
Jason Calacanis: So, what’s been the biggest interface leap since the mouse and the trackball which nobody really uses… used? Pen computing never really took off… Palm was sort of this interesting fad, but it never became a trend.
So, what’s the biggest trend that we’ve seen since trackball/mouse… I guess if you consider those one interface?
Kwindla Kramer: Well there’s definitely been a real efflorescence of touch over the last few years. When we started Oblong there was no iPad, no iPhone, no Connect, no Wii… and the question we always got was, “I have a mouse, why would I want to use anything else?”
We don’t have that question anymore, because people have learned to use these great touch-devices. But, our feeling is that that’s a very small baby-step towards this future. And, that what you really want is touch plus all of the space in front of the screen to be active for you, no matter how big that screen is.
So that’s true on very small screens you hold in your hand, and it’s true on screens you have in your living room or at work.
Jason Calacanis: So is that the Y axis, I guess? You have the X, the Y, and the… is the Y the depth?
Kwindla Kramer: We call it Z, but it depends on how you lay out the coordinate space, right.
Jason Calacanis: X, Y, Z, yeah. So, the idea is that not just the monitor’s resolution, their X, Y… but you have this Z plane going in and out.
Kwindla Kramer: Exactly, right, and the more finely you can track objects in front of that screen, the more you can do with an interface… the more rich and general purpose an interface you can build.
Jason Calacanis: And all of this has been enabled by tracking through, or, that, Z-level specifically, is tracking through webcams?
Kwindla Kramer: And, a new generation of depth sensors. So, the sensor that’s in the Microsoft Connect is made by an Israeli company called Prime Sense. There’s a few other competitors on the market.
Jason Calacanis: Right, that wouldn’t be considered a webcam as such, it’s a depth sensor.
Kwindla Kramer: It’s sort of a webcam mated to some sort of technology that can give you that Z axis–a depth-map combined with that.
Jason Calacanis: How does it do that?
Kwindla Kramer: So there’s a few different base-technologies. The one in the microsoft sensor, projects a little speckled infrared light pattern on the world…
Jason Calacanis: Got it.
Kwindla Kramer: And then the camera, actually looks at the deformation of that speckle-pattern, and can do some math to back out how far away each pixel is from the device.
It’s a very good technique. It’s very inexpensive. You can create consumer-class devices. It has some resolution limitations. It’s gonna have to get better to build interfaces that are better for things than just games.
Jason Calacanis: So it might know that I’m throwing a punch, but it might not be completely accurate, is what you’re saying… It might not know how many fingers I have clenched or something?
Kwindla Kramer: Yeah, I mean, accuracy of that particular sensor that’s on the market today is probably about two centimeters in X, Y, and Z. And the accuracy of our glove-based systems that are a direct descendent of the systems we built for Minority Report, is about 1/10th of a millimeter.
Jason Calacanis: And you built those systems for Minority Report. And were those working systems, or were those CGI post-production kind of…
Kwindla Kramer: So the graphics were actually done in post, but the systems were fully fleshed out, and many pieces of them worked. They were based on work that my co-founder John UnderKoffler had done in grad school at the MIT Media Lab.
Jason Calacanis: Got it.
Kwindla Kramer: So John built these beautiful systems that took computing out of the beige box and put it in the world with you, and tracked objects and people. And the production designer for Minority Report, a guy named Alex McDowell, came from LA to the Media Lab, to see what the future was gonna look like, and he saw John’s stuff, and he pulled John out of Cambridge, and brought him here to LA, and John worked on the film for two years.
Jason Calacanis: For two years! Wow.
Kwindla Kramer: Yeah, a Stephen Spielberg production is no joke.
Jason Calacanis: Two years of effort, to get that into the film. How much of a role do you think Science Fiction plays in the adoption of new technologies? I mean, people seeing it in Minority Report, does that prime them to understand the interface, and to… Did that prime them for the iPhone and pinching and zooming?
Kwindla Kramer: I really think so. And those Minority Report clips… So Minority Report came out 10 years ago.
Jason Calacanis: That’s unbelievable.
Kwindla Kramer: And every piece of press about us or the xBox Connect, or about other new startups doing spatial tracking, there’s a Minority Report reference. And, I think one of the reasons Minority Report has stood up so well, is because John wrote software manuals for the actors. Like, they knew exactly what they were doing on screen. It was a fully-realized system.
Jason Calacanis: Right.
Kwindla Kramer: And it was really compelling to people. And it really changed people’s ideas about what it would mean to use a computer.
Jason Calacanis: When you see Tom Cruise doing the gestures, it’s pretty clear that he’s doing them accurately.
Kwindla Kramer: Yeah, he knows what he’s doing.
Jason Calacanis: And does that interface carry over to today?
Kwindla Kramer: Absolutely. And we sell systems that are recognizably the same systems as in Minority Report, with a similar gestural vocabulary. I will say, though, that gesture is critical to us, but it’s a means, not an end. The reason we care about the gestural component of what we do is because it’s the highest possible bar for the interface. What we really care about is the multi-screen, multi-user, multi-device, computing future. We think you should be able to write a program, an application, that runs across all your screens and all your devices. That that should be the natural assumption of how you use a computer.
Jason Calacanis: And that’s the more practical use-case we’ve seen. Consumers really enjoy having multiple screens going at the same time. You see it with kids watching TV and having their IP Touches. You see it with parents using their iPads in front of their desktop computers.
Kwindla Kramer: Yeah
Jason Calacanis: It’s a trend that… was expected? Or not expected… for you?
Kwindla Kramer: For us, we built the company to make that happen. But, it was surprisingly heavy lifting, early on. We felt like we were too far ahead of the curve in 2006, 2007. And we really had to sort of explain to everyone, “Look, pixels are gonna get really cheap, sensors are gonna get better and better, you’re not gonna be scrambling a mouse across five screens–when you have five screens in front of you–but all those screens are gonna be interesting to you, and they’re going to be useful. And there are some things we can imagine really clearly we’re gonna do. And there are some things we can’t yet imagine we’re gonna do with that infrastructure, but we’ve gotta build it. It’s the natural next step.
Jason Calacanis: And it really is an infrastructure issue, I mean, if you think, this technology of multi-screen, sharing windows across computers… this could have existed a decade ago–and it did in your labs—but it’s taken such a long time for Microsoft and Apple. I mean, Apple just came out with AirPlay in the last year or so. And if you ask 100 people if they know what AirPlay is, 99 do not.
Kwindla Kramer: And that’s a tiny, tiny slice of that future that we know is coming. Well the mouse was, I mean Doug Englebert did the mouse demo in what, 68, 69…
Jason Calacanis: Late 60s… took a 15 year gestation period
Kwindla Kramer: Yeah, it completely did, and we often, inside Oblong, use that original Macintosh development project as a touchstone. There’s great oral history about it, it’s like a great example…
Jason Calacanis: A way to not be depressed… about how long this takes. I mean, it is depressing to work on this kind of interface, isn’t it…
Kwindla Kramer: We set the bar high…
Jason Calacanis: You see all these people putting out games, or websites, and they get to iterate constantly. And you guys have to suffer in decade-long cycles.
Kwindla Kramer: We’re a big full-stack company, right?
Jason Calacanis: It’s gotta be frustrating…
Kwindla Kramer: That’s the fun part, though right, building the thing that does put a dent in the universe.
Jason Calacanis: Right.
Kwindla Kramer: And that original Macintosh changed how everybody thought about using a computer. There’d been mice before, there’d been high-end workstations that were graphical, but the Macintosh was engineered from the motherboard up, to provide this new kind of computing experience. And when the Mac launched, not everybody got it. There’s a San Francisco Chronicle review of the Mac that says, “People really don’t want to use computers that are like this. The mouse is a toy, and it’s not even a very good toy.”
Jason Calacanis: And it wasn’t. It wasn’t very good at the start.
Kwindla Kramer: It wasn’t great. I would say it was very good, but not great. But very good set the stage for 10 years of evolution until Windows 95 when everybody threw in the towel and said, “This is the way we’re gonna use computers.”
Jason Calacanis: When does an interface go from being more fascinating than the previous one… to more effective?
Kwindla Kramer: Yeah… No… that’s a great question. And you’ve gotta be that 10x more effective. You’ve gotta..
Jason Calacanis: If you think about keyboards… You know, the keyboard, when the mouse came out, there were still people saying, like, why would you ever touch your mouse. And I tell people here, “Touching your mouse is death… learn the keyboard shortcuts, you’re gonna go faster.” But with touch interfaces, it’s not the case. How do you judge that?
Kwindla Kramer: We got partly trained away from the mouse by these mobile devices, that really, there’s no room for–and really not good affordances for a mouse-like thing–so we had to, sort-of, work on direct touch. And, for us, we think the driver will be the fact that as soon as you have multiple screens in your life–especially screens that are just not practical for you to touch–the spatial interfaces are the natural next step.
And we see that coming very clearly, and there are killer-app domains for us–like the conference room, where you want 2,3,4,5,6 screens so you can share all your work with all your colleagues up across the walls of the conference room–that we’re starting to get real traction on.
I think, as a startup, you’re always looking for that killer-app, that market-entry point. So we feel like we’ve found a couple of them, and it’s gonna blossom from there.
Jason Calacanis: When you see those huge walls of video, how soon before my little 40-person startup has a conference room where instead of a white board, we have 4 flat panels, or a 3×6 grid of flat panels, or something where we’re all just throwing stuff into a common workspace.
Kwindla Kramer: We should put that in for you tomorrow. I mean, we’ve got it, we’re across town, and we can stick it in the back of our car…
Jason Calacanis: But I mean, how much does that cost? And when does it become realistic. I mean, that sounds like a $50,000 system.
Kwindla Kramer: Yeah, so those systems are a few tens of thousands of dollars now as we sell them, but that’s partly because we’re just getting started and we don’t have volume production, and we don’t have volume sales channels yet. But we’re working really hard on that. I think we can cut those prices in half, and in half again, and in half again, over the next two years. And then it starts to be ubiquitous. It starts to be what you assume you’ll have access to when you walk into a meeting space.
Jason Calacanis: Now, do you have to be the people who create the hardware–you said you’re a full-stack company before–can I just buy four Samsungs, and then add two when my company gets bigger, and add too more, and sort-of have this organic monitor growth, but the same platform, the same workspace so to speak?
Kwindla Kramer: Yeah, absolutely. And we certainly don’t have any ambitions to build the screens. At least not today, because flat panels are a commodity. The way we sell the mezzanine product–which is the meeting-space, conference room, product–is as an appliance, because it’s the easiest way to deliver software to you in a form that’s robust and easy for you to use.
Jason Calacanis: I mean customer support has to be tremendous for products that are conference room products.
Kwindla Kramer: And a new thing, and something where you’re creating the market. So, a really well-heeled appliance-model is a good way to get to market with the kind of things we’re doing. Our appliance, though, is a bunch of software loaded onto some hardware, in a way that we can QC it. So we do have a–the value is in the software. And the value is in the software that runs not only in that appliance, but that extends out to run on your laptop and your phone and your mobile device. So it really is more and more software over time. But having hardware expertise, I think, is a big advantage for a startup. If you can think in hardware and software, you can…
Jason Calacanis: Things have changed for hardware. How has it changed in the last decade, and why has it changed so much?
Kwindla Kramer: Everybody knows, I think, that software’s gotten easier… so much more accessible… development tools, hosting environments, all that. So, the bar has lowered in terms of what you have to know, or the funding you have to have to start a software startup. That same thing is starting to happen for hardware. It’s easier and easier to prototype hardware. I still think we’re in the part of that curve where if you really invest in hardware knowledge and hardware competence inside your company, you have a huge strategic advantage. But I think in 10 years, we’ll see hardware as something that more startups have access to in the same way that we now see software, as sort of a level playing field.
Jason Calacanis: Yeah, so the ability for any company to create apps and have software… We might see a time when any startup is just like, yeah, here’s a piece of hardware for you.
Kwindla Kramer: Yeah, exactly, because sometimes that’s the right way to deliver bits. As one of our investors, Brad Feld, says, “You should deliver some of your bits wrapped in plastic.” Which is a great model. There’s all sorts of small devices that change people’s lives, that you can only deliver as a device.
Software as a service is not the only technology sector, right?
Jason Calacanis: Yeah. So when we get back, I want to hear a little bit more about the line between science fiction and the reality and science–especially in healthcare too, because that’s a big space where it seems like people could be wildly efficient, and if that’s actually happening yet, or not.
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Ok, when we left we were talking about interfaces. Coming back, talking about interfaces. Healthcare. This is the area where people say, multiple screens, depth, this is gonna be the Holy Grail, this is gonna change everything.
Why do they say that? Is it gonna change everything? Or is it just again science fiction.
Kwindla Kramer: Oh no, I think healthcare is really ripe for big data in general, and better user-interfaces in general, and new ways of thinking about what you’re putting on your screens so that you can do a better job serving the patient.
We have a couple of partners who we work with, including General Electric, which has a really big healthcare practice. So we’ve been learning about healthcare. We’ve been learning about the imagery-heavy workflows in things like radiology. And those workflows, like just about every workflow, are gonna get disrupted every few years by new technologies. And I think that the moment where that happens for things like radiology is very close. Also, touchless interfaces in the operating room are potentially really transformative to putting the right information up on the right screen, so that the doctors and nurses in the OR know what they need to know when they’re cutting into you.
Jason Calacanis: So I’m a surgeon, and I am cutting somebody open, doing open-heart surgery, and my hands are covered in blood and whatever, and I’m just pointing over to the side, flipping through your medical records.
Kwindla Kramer: Yeah, and maybe you’re actually driving live some imaging systems that are in the OR, and you’re getting the right depth and the right angle, so you can actually see what’s–before you cut, you can see where to cut.
Jason Calacanis: So I have a 3-D model of the heart, and with my left hand I’m rotating the heart and looking and twisting, and figuring out if I’m in the right place. And in the right hand’s a scalpel, or one of the more robotic tools that does that.
Kwindla Kramer: That’s exactly right, and in today’s operating room, that person holding the scalpel is asking somebody else to orient the imagery, or put the prep work up on the screen, and that’s fundamentally much less–there’s a gap in the control-loop there, right?
Jason Calacanis: And, what does this do? What’s the important part about this? Is it that it makes the surgery more accurate? Or that it makes the surgery more efficient and brings the cost of the surgery down because it’s more efficient and gets that surgery to more people? What do you think is the key there?
Kwindla Kramer: I think there’s a pattern in new technologies where, often, to sell them initially you have to argue that the value proposition is efficiency. But what the value proposition really is over the medium term is transformation. So, if you can make the surgery a little safer, a little faster, require one fewer people in the OR–that’s a good thing. But if you can change how the surgeon visualizes what he or she is actually doing–that’s a great thing. But you know, you have to get there step-by-step in new markets.
Jason Calacanis: Why is it a great thing? Because it’s cooler? Or because they’re gonna make less mistakes? Or have a deeper understanding of your heart? I mean, that’s what I’m sort of getting at. I think that the curmudgeons or the cynics will look at this and say, “Oh, it’s a toy.” What’s the argument, and do you actually hear that argument from old-school doctors saying, “I don’t need to rotate the heart in 3-D, I’m..”
Kwindla Kramer: We do, and I’m a little out of my depth in healthcare. I have a lot of conversations about it, we don’t actually ship product about it. So I always want to note my ignorance. But, in the radiology stuff, for example, all the workflows are 2-D now, and medical students are starting to visualize 3-D radiology. The equipment is more expensive. The knowledge is not evenly distributed across the profession. So, there’s certainly some push-back on whether you would need 3-D. It’s hard for me to imagine that we’re gonna look back in 20 years and think anything other than, “The transition from 2-D to 3-D changed how accurate and how fast and how efficient radiology could be.”
Jason Calacanis: Paradigms don’t die, people do. What’s moved faster in this space–in the interface space–than you thought it would?
Kwindla Kramer: The adoption of the iPad in corporate america has been really interesting to me, and hugely helpful I think in pushing interfaces forward. With our conference room product we ship a spatial pointing device–we just call it a wand. You pick it up off the table, it works like a laser-pointer, you can move anything around on the screens. Some people love the wand, but some people don’t–especially older people who are maybe not so comfortable learning a new piece of technology in front of all their colleagues.
It’s become a much easier sell to drive all these screens in your conference room, because those same people have fallen in love with there iPads…
Jason Calacanis: Right…
Kwindla Kramer: So we can say, “Oh yeah, you can use the wand if you want, you can use your web browser if you want, or you can just use your iPad.” And we don’t have to get over the resistance of a new piece of technology to drive all the displays in a room.
Jason Calacanis: It’s a nice thing when other companies create a product that makes your product that much more rich and enjoyable.
Kwindla Kramer: Yeah, it’s great. It’s really great.
Jason Calacanis: It’s like this manna from heaven.
Kwindla Kramer: Yeah.
Jason Calacanis: I think Sonos, the music system, had this same experience. Which was, they used to sell with an interface that was a 4 or 5 hundred dollar, very heavy, weighted, nice, rich device to sort through your music. And then, of course the iPad comes out, and the iPhone came out, and they made apps. And now, everybody just uses their iPad for it. But actually I like the old-school, heavier, dedicated device.
What’s the advantage of the dedicated device over leveraging somebody else’s ecosystem and that sort of generic device.
Kwindla Kramer: In our world, specifically, the standard devices aren’t yet fully part of your physical world. So you can’t walk into one of our conference rooms and hold an iPhone in your hand and have the room know exactly where that iPhone is. So, you can do a certain amount of spatial manipulation of the things on the screen, and you can use the touch screen, and it’s a really satisfying experience, but we know–as the people who are building this stuff–that it’s missing a little bit. Whereas, you pick up our spatial wand, and anywhere you point in the room to a pixel accuracy, we’re tracking where you’re pointing. And you can just do an enormous amount of subtle and complicated and interesting things with that–that are completely easy for users to master.
So, there’s a missing link now, in terms of the sensing capabilities and the device interconnects in standard shipping products. I think that’s going to shift over the next five years as this way of thinking about multi-user, multi-screen, multi-device starts to become more common.
Jason Calacanis: Lets talk about patents for a second, I know you guys probably have a lot of patents?
Kwindla Kramer: We do.
Jason Calacanis: And… a lot of patent abuse going on, a lot of patents in the news. What should be patentable in gestures. Should the act of pinching or zooming, should that really be patentable? Or it that something that because it exists in the real world–you know when you see people on Minority Report opening things up–you know doing the common gesture that you would do in any movie or framing a picture. Should those things be patentable or not?
Kwindla Kramer: I’m personally, generally, much more a fan of innovation-derived business models, than of protectionist-derived business models. And, I think, in many parts of software and systems development, it would probably be better not to have patents at all than to have patents.
We live in a world where the patent system is what it is, though.
Jason Calacanis: Right.
Kwindla Kramer: So for a startup company, I think it’s really important to look at that and say, “Ok, well, in some areas of work, defensive patent strategies are really critical.”
Jason Calacanis: Right.
Kwindla Kramer: And that’s what we do at Oblong. We sort of patent everything that we can, within the spirit of the patent laws, and we’ll sort of let it all come out in the wash as these things evolve.
Jason Calacanis: Right, you have to defend yourself. You have to play the game to a certain extent. But if you had your druthers, it’d be great if everybody would just battle it out on a product basis.
Kwindla Kramer: I really think so. And I’m not an expert in domains like pharma. So there may well be economic incentives that are tilted differently in those industries. I think what matters in software and hardware are innovation, not patents.
Jason Calacanis: So when you see this massive Internet-trolling by Nathan Myhrvold, and he’s just patenting everything in the world. Bringing a bunch of smart people–people who are colleagues of ours–to come together and just patent stuff for the sake of patenting it. Does it feel fair to you to do something like that?
Kwindla Kramer: It doesn’t seem to me that that’s the best place to put resources. Right, you could continue to innovate, or you could lock-up the innovations that you come up with. And, I think if you continue to innovate, both your companies in general and the world in particular are gonna come out ahead in the long run, right?
Jason Calacanis: Should patents only be given to people who actually put the technology to work–actually product-ize it? Do you think that’s a possible solution? We’ve heard people talk about that.
Kwindla Kramer: I think it’s a possible solution. I think it’s tough to figure out exactly how to specify that. Like, what does it mean to be utilizing or putting into practice an invention?
Jason Calacanis: Yeah, you could hack that pretty easily if you’re a big company with a lot of resources.
Kwindla Kramer: I think you probably could. And any system you set rules up for is game-able, and I think that’s part of the problem with our current patent system. I do think certain kinds of intellectual property protection are valuable to society, but I think it’s very hard to figure out exactly where to draw those lines.
Jason Calacanis: Yeah. And they seem like they’re hopelessly under-funded to take on this challenge in the face of companies which have unlimited resources.
Kwindla Kramer: Well the backlog in the patent office is very long now. I mean, we have patents we filed in 2007 that we haven’t received an office action on yet.
Jason Calacanis: Wow.
Kwindla Kramer: So they’re… They’re working very hard I’m sure to catch-up on that backlog, but it’s long.
Jason Calacanis: And when they catch-up on the backlog, where do they date your patent to?
Kwindla Kramer: You do get the priority date from when you filed.
Jason Calacanis: Right, but then you’re already, whatever number of years into it, so the whole thing is becoming this very weird–I mean what if a lawsuit happens in the window where your patent is not yet resolved–so many issues.
Kwindla Kramer: Yeah, it’s complicated. And the law is evolving. There were a couple Supreme Court cases last year. I try to follow this stuff so that I understand how to craft a defensive patent strategy, but I don’t pretend to understand the details.
Jason Calacanis: It’s almost coming to the point where it’s collapsing on itself, which might be a necessary part of this process of re-thinking it.
Kwindla Kramer: I think that’s right. And I think we saw that with music copyright over the last 15 years, and we’re still not in a steady state for compensating artists for recorded music. And I don’t know what that steady state is going to end up looking like. It’s been an interesting transition, but hard on existing business models–as transitions often are.
Jason Calacanis: Yeah. And so tell me about the company in terms of how long it’s existed, how it’s been funded, and how many people work at it. What’s the particulars of the company?
Kwindla Kramer: Sure, so we started the company here in LA in 2006, and we were just a handful of people. Most of us knew each other from the MIT Media Lab. And we had customers very early on. We had Boeing as a big, early customer. We were delivering them systems for big data… So they were doing large-scale really high fidelity military simulation. They just needed to be able to see their data better, and be able to manipulate what was going on in real time in these 200 person scenarios. So we were selling our systems very early.
And we were in the nice position that Steven Spielberg had filmed our first marketing video.
Jason Calacanis: Yeah, is he a shareholder.
Kwindla Kramer: No, he’s not.
Jason Calacanis: Why not?
Kwindla Kramer: That’s a good question.
Jason Calacanis: Shouldn’t he be at least an advisor? Can’t you just ship him 50 basis points and say “be an advisor”.
Kwindla Kramer: He’s a busy guy, but we certainly feel like we…
Jason Calacanis: Great get for your website.
Kwindla Kramer: Yeah, very much so.
Jason Calacanis: Advisor – Steven Spielberg
Kwindla Kramer: Well he was invaluable in the formative arc of this thing. We have a little unusual arc.
Jason Calacanis: Head of Public Relations – Steven Spielberg.
Kwindla Kramer: That would be great, right. The academic lab to Hollywood to hardcore tech startup is not a super-common trajectory.
Jason Calacanis: When were you guys at MIT?
Kwindla Kramer: I was at the Media Lab from 96-99.
Jason Calacanis: Is that Negroponte Days?
Kwindla Kramer: Yeah.
Jason Calacanis: Tell me about the Media Lab when Nicholas Negroponte was running it.
Kwindla Kramer: I was so lucky to wash up there. I had no idea–I was young I had no idea what I was doing.
Jason Calacanis: Well explain to people who don’t know, that period of time. Paint a picture.
Kwindla Kramer: So at the Media Lab in the mid 1990s there was this incredible interdisciplinary academic research mindset grafted onto a demo-or-die, build new stuff and show it to people ethic. And that was new. There were not a lot of computer science, design, hardware interdisciplinary programs at all in academia. And there weren’t any where the driving ethic was to build something new every week.
Jason Calacanis: Wow.
Kwindla Kramer: And, what made that possible, was the personality of Nicholas Negroponte, who founded the lab, and who pushed the lab to be always in that demo-or-die mode, and the collection of professors he’d gathered to be the brain-trust at the lab. And the funding. Nicholas was such a great fundraiser, and this was in the run-up to the dot com boom, when companies had just started to figure out that the digital ground was shifting under their feet, but there were absolutely no resource constraints. You showed up as a grad student at the media lab, and if you wanted to build something, you could build it. And it didn’t matter whether it was crazy…
Jason Calacanis: Wow.
Kwindla Kramer: Because if you built it and you showed it and people liked it, great. And if you didn’t, you built the next thing. And it didn’t matter how expensive it was–mostly–because there were resources to build new things.
Jason Calacanis: And so tell me about the first day you showed up there and knew this was the place for you.
Kwindla Kramer: Well the first day I showed up there, I was looking up some research papers on programming languages, and I found what I needed on the web, which was quite new then.
Jason Calacanis: This is 94?
Kwindla Kramer: This was 96. This was summer 96.
Jason Calacanis: Were you using Mosaic?
Kwindla Kramer: I was probably using Mosaic.
Jason Calacanis: Or Netscape 1.0?
Kwindla Kramer: Probably so. And maybe on like a Sun or a DEC workstation.
Jason Calacanis: Sure. Why not? A $3000 workstation just to surf the web.
Kwindla Kramer: Exactly. And I had come from a non-computer-science background, a sort of liberal arts background, so this was all completely new to me.
I remember walking out of my office and down the hall to my colleagues office, and saying, “I’ve got some stuff I want to print. Who do I ask if I can print this stuff out?” And she looked at me like I was crazy, like “Who do you ask if you can print something? Just print. Print 5 copies, print 10 copies, order the bound-copy.”
And that lack of resource-constraints was just amazing. It let all of these new things get built that wouldn’t have gotten built otherwise. The Internet of Things was being invented there at the Media Lab. I got really, really interested in that. It sort of changed the course of my research and my…
Jason Calacanis: What does it mean, “The Internet of Things”?
Kwindla Kramer: That no matter how small a little bit of computation is, like the chip in your alarm clock, it should have an IP address, it should be able to talk on the network, and you should be able to do something interesting with it. And that was brand new.
Jason Calacanis: It’s an incredible concept.
Kwindla Kramer: Incredible, and it’s changed the world from out from under us. I mean, all of the electronics that we all have all around us are increasingly network-accessible, and you can do things with them, and you can do things with them collectively which is huge.
Jason Calacanis: So how big is the company now, 5 or 6 years you’ve been around, you’ve done two rounds of funding.
Kwindla Kramer: We did our Series A in 2007 with really great investors who have been super-terrific partners for us–The Foundry Group guys–Brad Feld, Jason Mendelson, Seth Levine, and Ryan McIntyre.
Jason Calacanis: In Colorado.
Kwindla Kramer: They’re based in Colorado, yeah, they invest everywhere, they’re on planes all the time. But they’re based in Colorado, and they’ve built a great entrepreneurial ecosystem in Boulder.
Jason Calacanis: Was Brad the first money in?
Kwindla Kramer: Yeah, those guys were the first money in. They did the whole Series A, and then they led our Series B, and they…
Jason Calacanis: How hard was it to raise money for this idea in the Series A?
Kwindla Kramer: So… We had a lot of interest, but it was hard to convince people that there was a business here, which is understandable, I think that makes a lot of sense.
Jason Calacanis: Sure, you come in with interface, they’re like, “Really?”
Kwindla Kramer: How fast are you going to be able to put this stuff onto a scalable collection of things that people pay money for?
Brad got it right away. We were incredibly impressed with Brad, both in his belief in the 10 year vision of the company–changing how everybody in the world uses computers–and in his mark to market focus on “build some stuff that people will pay for every quarter.” So we love those guys…
Jason Calacanis: So the mission there was “Change the way everybody uses a computer”, is that your…
Kwindla Kramer: Yeah, absolutely.
Jason Calacanis: That’s the mission statement. What a mission statement.
Kwindla Kramer: Change what it even means–when people think about what it means to use a computer–change that.
Jason Calacanis: Got it. And so he gets the longterm vision.
Kwindla Kramer: Absolutely. Yeah.
Jason Calacanis: And you probably spoke to–I’m gonna guess–25 VCs in the A round?
Kwindla Kramer: Probably.
Jason Calacanis: And, no other term-sheets, I’m gonna guess.
Kwindla Kramer: No, we had a lot of other interest. We actually waited for The Foundry Guys to finish raising their first fund we liked them so much.
Jason Calacanis: Oh, wow.
Kwindla Kramer: We were looking for fit. We were looking for people who really understood the long term vision, and we thought would be additive to growing the company.
Jason Calacanis: And a 10 year vision, for a VC with a 6-7 year window, it’s gonna be a little more scary. This is one of the long term investments and bets they’re gonna make. But he thought–correct me if I’m wrong–there were way-points along the way to this 10, 20 year vision.
Kwindla Kramer: That’s right. And, we were trying very hard to demonstrate that we thought there were way-points along the way too. And we had customers, so we were able to be a little bit patient about fundraising because Boeing was paying us for delivery of high end hardware plus software licences plus engineering hours and services, and we were expanding that kind of high-touch (low volume, but high-touch) high-end customer base.
Jason Calacanis: You were doing your R&D on the client’s nickel, in a way. I mean, that’s the great thing about having a client-based business like that, isn’t it?
Kwindla Kramer: Yeah, and it was great. We knew that wasn’t a scalable business model, and some month’s the client’s nickel didn’t pay for all of our R&D, we were bootstrapping, but it was a huge advantage to be able to be paid to build the stuff we thought was gonna change the world.
Jason Calacanis: And it’s a great deal for them too. They get exclusive access to the most brilliant people in this emerging field.
Kwindla Kramer: And I think we really did provide huge amounts of value to Boeing, and then to Saudi Aramco. We built the largest oil reservoir simulator front-end in the world in Dhahran for Saudi Aramco.
Jason Calacanis: So what is that these princes can walk into like a holodeck and see how much money they’re going to make eventually? Does it like model the… are there Ferraris floating in the oil? And as the oil goes down, the number of Ferraris goes up or something? How does that work?
Kwindla Kramer: They do some demos for stakeholders in Saudi Arabia that aren’t necessarily engineers, but it’s a room for engineers. It’s a room for computer scientists, and drilling engineers, and chemical engineers, and all the folks who have to figure out what’s going on in an oil field.
Come into that room together, and the room is just plastered with screens. And some of the screens are mobile, they can roll them around on wheels. And they’ve got mobile devices in their hands, and they can actually see–like really see–the huge volumes of data that they’ve got about an oil reservoir. And the really interesting thing to us, learning about that part of the world, is that the difference between managing an oil reservoir really well is 5 years of sustainable production, versus 50 years of sustainable production.
Jason Calacanis: Wow.
Kwindla Kramer: So bad management is 5 years, good management is 50 years. So there’s a huge economic value proposition in getting it right. And they really care about that long term management.
Jason Calacanis: And that’s the sales pitch.
Kwindla Kramer: Yeah. See your data. Make better decisions. Get all the expertise involved in making those decisions. And extract…
Jason Calacanis: The idea of writing a 5 or 10 million dollar check to make this incredible simulation–not scary if you’re talking about it could possibly save a multi-billion dollar mistake. Or could lead to an insight that makes an additional couple of billion dollars.
Kwindla Kramer: Yeah, it’s justifiable. Yeah.
Jason Calacanis: And now you’re going down that curve of, “Ok, the oil reserve, which is worth hundreds of billions of dollars maybe.” Then you come down to conference rooms where a meeting that could lead to a business insight could be the difference between a billion dollar decision to go into a market or not. This could be hundreds of millions or billions of dollars going on in a conference room for a Fortune 500 company.
Kwindla Kramer: Or a few hundred thousand dollars over the course of a marketing campaign or a software development project.
Jason Calacanis: Well I was just sort of coming down from the c-suite down to the pr/marketing companies making decisions. And then you slide down to what?
Kwindla Kramer: I think everybody who works with their colleagues, ever, at all, is in need of better tools to share workflow. I mean, everything we do now is mediated by our digital devices. Everything I do is on one of my computers, or multiple of my computers, and I need to share my work product with my colleagues. And I need to see what they’re working on to actually understand the decisions we’re making every day.
Jason Calacanis: Umm, so you guys have a couple of the Google Glasses prototypes, and you’re starting to test them.
Kwindla Kramer: We don’t. We don’t.
Jason Calacanis: You’re lying to me right now. You just… I could tell you’re lying so easily! You looked down at your shoes when I mentioned them.
Kwindla Kramer: I think that’s really interesting stuff. I think there’s…
Jason Calacanis: You’re not working on that. Come on.
Kwindla Kramer: We know some of the people who are working on Google Glass.
Jason Calacanis: You have to have Google. Google Glasses plus this stuff equals… phenomenal.
Kwindla Kramer: It’s neat stuff. That’s actually another technology that was born at the Media Lab when we were there.
Jason Calacanis: Sure.
Kwindla Kramer: The wearable computing stuff.
Jason Calacanis: That was a big push in the 90s, wearable computing.
Kwindla Kramer: It really was. And the folks who pioneered that did amazing work, before it really should have been possible to wear a screen all the time and figure out what that meant for your life. And some of those folks are now working on Google Glass.
So, Google Glass–really really interesting. From our very narrow perspective, it’s just another display. It’s just another device.
Jason Calacanis: Right. So good luck to them building it. You’ll incorporate it when it’s stable.
Kwindla Kramer: That’s exactly right. And we want to be the common operating environment that lets you take all your devices and share the computing context across all of them.
It’s not fair to call it (Google Glass) just another device, but architecturally that’s how we think about it.
Jason Calacanis: Why haven’t voice interfaces ever become important. It seems like they’re relegated to one use-case… and that’s driving directions.
Kwindla Kramer: There’s two problems with voice… There’s lots of great things about voice, but there’s two really hard problems. One is that it’s just a tough engineering problem–speech recognition–and it’s gotten enormously better, but good enough is a really high bar–good enough for general purpose use. I do think we’re starting to see some general purpose voice interfaces that are usable every day, and they are starting to change some things about how people use computers.
Jason Calacanis: Issue 1 is technical.
Kwindla Kramer: Issue 1 is technical. Tough engineering problem… requires processor/bandwidth. The reason Siri works on the iPhone is because they send it to a server. It’s a really computationally intensive problem.
Jason Calacanis: It’s also the reason it doesn’t work. Because the networks are so terrible that the amount of time it takes to get movie tickets is five times longer than typing it in.
Kwindla Kramer: It’s a tough problem. The other thing though, is that voice is not spatial. And, a lot of the things we do on computers actually do have a fundamentally spatial component. So, you move the mouse around on the screen or you touch something on the screen, you’re doing something spatial. And as we expand to multiple screens and embed these computers and screens in our world, it becomes even more spatial. So, it’s very hard to communicate lots of things you want to do with a user-interface, through the voice channel.
We think of voice as complimentary to what we do, and some of our customers use voice alongside the spatial stuff, and we make that really easy with the APIs and how the platform is built. But voice is not really what we do.
Jason Calacanis: It just doesn’t work. You know, every year–every year or two–I try. From the 90s on… I got Dragon Dictate when it was $1000.
Kwindla Kramer: Yeah, me too.
Jason Calacanis: And this last year maybe 3 or 4 months ago I got the 99 Dragon Dictate, and it’s phenomenal when you’re dictating. It has come so far. I could just read. I could read, literally a book, and have probably one or two errors per page–with my Brooklyn accent.
However, you nailed it, there are so many windows and things going on, that to use Gmail is impossible. To switch from browser tab windows–impossible. It’s impossible to use any kind of multi-window or multi-tasking–to use an old-school word–any multi-tasking it seems to break down.
Kwindla Kramer: Any kind of complex information space, and I mean that in the broadest possible sense, right. And our computers can do so much that–because they’re simplifying to the voice channel is probably not the right thing for most uses. It is great when you’re driving. It is great when you’re dictating.
The progress for like, telephone support voice recognition systems is actually really impressive even though sometimes they’re really irritating. So voice is going to keep getting better.
Jason Calacanis: Oh you mean when you call up American Airlines and it says, “How can we help you?” and you say “I need to reschedule… or re-book.”
Kwindla Kramer: Yeah, and it gets it right.
Jason Calacanis: Yeah.
Kwindla Kramer: And that’s pretty cool. And that stuff is gonna continue to get better and better. And we’re gonna continue to use voice–I think–where it’s appropriate in interfaces. But, I don’t think that voice is the building block for the general purpose user-interface.
Jason Calacanis: What about eye-tracking. People have thought about eye-tracking plus audio. So I look at my browser window and it knows I’m addressing that one. Does that actually work yet?
Kwindla Kramer: Not really.
Jason Calacanis: Why not. They said that was gonna work. That was another one they promised was gonna work.
Kwindla Kramer: I think the semantics of what we’re looking at are a lot more complicated than we think. Like, we don’t actually always know really what we’re looking at and what we’re paying attention to. So, to some extent, if eye-tracking worked perfectly–and it’s OK from a technical perspective now–you would actually have to re-learn how to use your interface. And as you were saying earlier in the conversation, it would have to be ten times better for most people to want to re-learn that. I do think there are some places around the edges where you could use eye-tracking that would be interesting. But, the other place eye-tracking breaks down is multi-user. And, as you know, we’re really really obsessed with multi-user stuff. We think it’s crazy that we have this computing environment 30 years after the mouse where we’re still looking at one screen and assuming that’s what it is to use a computer.
And as soon as you have multiple people in the room, eye-tracking becomes becomes both a harder technical problem, and much less clear what you actually want to do with the eye-tracking data.
Jason Calacanis: Is there going to be a product eventually… Or is there a product in market where, lets say I have a team of 4 or 5 people… We could all, if we’re sitting in the same room, just have a monitor between us that is our shared monitor–that we could drag and drop stuff to and interact in. I mean obviously you can use GoToMeeting or you can use other… Google Docs. But it doesn’t feel like a permanent, physical space. Is that a product you guys would eventually have, or do you have?
Kwindla Kramer: That is effectively our Mezzanine product roadmap. We focused on going to market with big screens for a meeting room, because you get so much bang for your buck from 55 inch commodity LCDs these days, that putting three of them in a meeting room transforms how you think about the work you can do in that room. But that experience of having that shared workspace on those big screens needs to scale down. So you can use one screen in that room, or you can use a little screen on the desk. Or you could create a virtual screen across your three laptops that you’re all sitting in front of, and sort of snug up together and all look at together.
Jason Calacanis: Yeah. How much of that personal space effects that. Because I know when I’m on my laptop I don’t want anybody screwing with that. Like, “That’s my laptop. Don’t…” I don’t want anybody else’s mouse flying across that. Is that gonna change, or is this idea that we put our three laptops together and we’re all working together, is that gonna work, or are people too proprietary about their desktops.
Kwindla Kramer: I think our assumptions change as the devices get more capable. It was incredibly rude five years ago to take our your cell phone and check your messages, but now people I know–and even me sometimes even though I don’t necessarily think it’s super-polite–spend all of dinner texting.
So these things really do evolve, and I think that as you have tablets and more and more of these devices around you all the time, I think some of those assumptions are gonna evolve. How they’ll evolve exactly, I don’t think we know. But that’s sort of exciting.
Jason Calacanis: What are some of the cool features that people use in the conference room, in the Mezzanine system? I’m curious, because you make a bunch of technology, and as William Gibson said, “The street finds its own use.”
Kwindla Kramer: That’s right.
Jason Calacanis: That was one of our favorite quotes from the Media Lab I think back in the day… I didn’t go, but I’ve been there a couple of times.
Kwindla Kramer: Absolutely.
Jason Calacanis: So how is the street, as it were, using Mezzanine?
Kwindla Kramer: So there’s a few things people have done in the rooms which have really surprised us, which makes us really happy. Because if you’ve built technology where people use it in ways you didn’t expect, then you’ve done something right.
Jason Calacanis: Right.
Kwindla Kramer: So we have a snapshotting feature in Mezzanine where you can really easily with the wand or a web browser snapshot what’s on the screen.
Jason Calacanis: Sure.
Kwindla Kramer: And people have started building their knowledge of what’s going on in a meeting–they’re kind of annotated meeting notes–just by snapshotting things.
Jason Calacanis: Ahh..
Kwindla Kramer: And then kind of assembling. And we sort of had that use case in mind, but not really. We didn’t really understand how people would use that.
Jason Calacanis: Yeah, it’s almost like the notes from the meeting.
Kwindla Kramer: It is, it’s like a sort of collage people make, but organized and easy to follow. And so we’ve pushed the product more to support that kind of use case.
And one of our folks who works on Mezzanine actually cut up a really gorgeous panorama of mountains in the Alps, I think, and assembled that panorama into–just using the Mezzanine API–uploaded the pieces of that panorama in such a way that it’s just an immersive experience. You open up that Mezzanine meeting, and you’re inside that panorama. And we didn’t design the product for that. We didn’t design the UI for that. We designed it, basically, to be very friendly to people who thought…
Jason Calacanis: In the background, yeah.
Kwindla Kramer: PowerPoint was sort of like, we need to be friendly to PowerPoint expectations. But as soon as you have those three screens, and they’re big enough, and you can upload stuff with the API, you’re way beyond what you can do with PowerPoint.
Jason Calacanis: Are people making templates up there? So lets say we have a workshop on, I don’t know, idea generation. Or a workshop on culture building. Could I build an experience to go across those three or four screens? Like, it’s a background, but what if it’s a background you could fill questions in, or draw things in, and it’s like, “Hey, lets do our culture exercise today.” You could almost subscribe to different exercises for different… Almost like, you know, these business workbooks.
Kwindla Kramer: We do think about what we’re doing as creating that new kind of workspace. And we’ve got APIs so you can build on top of it. And, one of the places we’re selling into are high-end sales facilities, presentation facilities, executive briefing centers, where people are doing exactly that.
Jason Calacanis: Yeah, those kind of off-site meetings.
Kwindla Kramer: And that’s got the same kind of two-step value proposition you were talking about earlier. The initial grab for the customer is, “I can move stuff around on the screens, I can put up presentations that are more high-impact, I can get rid of my Crestron touch-screen that controls the layouts.”
Jason Calacanis: Oh, god, the Crestron, yeah.
Kwindla Kramer: So that’s the first thing. It’s like, it’s a little bit better than what I’ve got now–and it has really high wow-factor. But then the second piece of the value proposition is that it’s this platform, it’s this workspace, and you can create brand new things in it.
Jason Calacanis: What about schools? I mean, people use these, whatever they are, $1000 or $2000 blackboards you can print stuff from, and what not. Do you think this is the future of education, or do you think the future of education is Coursera and Udacity, and being on your laptop and just getting access to the best teacher? Or do you think it’s the interface that’s the issue?
Kwindla Kramer: I think it’s both. And one of the things we did when we were designing the Mezzanine product was, we really paid attention to that in-room experience, where you come into a room with other real people, and you have a new way of working together. That was very important to us because we felt like if we got that right, we could then syndicate big chunks of that experience over the network. But the reverse is not true. You can’t build the network experience and then turn that into the best possible real-physical real world experience. But they both matter. So we came at it through the vector of making the physical space and the multi-screen environment as good as possible. But then you’ve gotta make the network experience great too.
Jason Calacanis: See I think that you guys would be an amazing up-sell for Udacity or for Coursera or for some of these people who are doing the Stanford courses or MIT I guess has opencourseware and stuff. Because, maybe I can’t afford to go to MIT, or there’s not a spot for me, or I don’t want to go full time, and I’m very thankful that the videos are available and the courses are available, but what’s in-between those two things? What’s the Learning Annex version of taking the computer interface course, or the gamification course or the business entrepreneurship course? It might be, “Hey, for $300 you can come for three weeks to just interface with a teacher with 30 other people, and it’s whatever, 5 people in each of 6 cities.
Kwindla Kramer: I think that’s right. And I think it makes a big difference to have 5 people together in a room. I think it changes the educational dynamic.
Jason Calacanis: Certainly the motivational dynamic.
Kwindla Kramer: I think it does. The other thing, though, is that your living room should feel just like one of our Mezzanine conference rooms.
Jason Calacanis: Oh, that’s crazy.
Kwindla Kramer: You’ve got that 42 inch TV in your living room, right?
Jason Calacanis: Yeah.
Kwindla Kramer: And you’ve got your laptop, and you’ve got your tablet. We’re not able to use all those screens today. We’re not able to use the living room wall screen as part of that shared workspace, but we’re on the way to fixing that.
Jason Calacanis: Close. Yeah, well when the Apple TV comes out, and other devices. So, you took this company in one direction, and now you see all these screens proliferating at a pace you didn’t expect. Is it time to reboot the company and just say, “Lets make this a free operating system and let everybody go crazy?” Do you have those internal discussions, and where do they lead you?
Kwindla Kramer: We have those discussions all the time. Although, we haven’t yet needed to think about rebooting the company, because we actually feel like we’re on track. We had this vision in 2005-2006, and we feel like we’re delivering on it.
Jason Calacanis: Yeah.
Kwindla Kramer: The question about “how you get it everywhere” though, is the big strategic question. So we picked what we think is a really big product segment to get the ideas out into the world. There are 12 million conference rooms in the world, so that’s a pretty big market. Reasonable to go after that market. But that’s not the end-point for the company. The end-point for the company is, every single screen in the world has this experience on it. And, delivering the operating system layer out to people–so they can hack on it and tinker with it, and build value on top of it–is really important to us. We passed 75 people a while ago, we’re continuing to grow. We still don’t have enough people to do everything we’d like to do though. So one of our unfulfilled goals is to get the core platform out, free for non-commercial use, fully-supported and documented and evangelized so that people can build stuff that we don’t even imagine.
Jason Calacanis: Yeah. I mean, that seems to be the home run, getting that platform out there. And you guys did a Series B last year, Morgan Stanley.
Kwindla Kramer: Yeah, so Foundry brought one of their LPs in, Morgan Stanley alternative investment partners, and GE joined as a strategic.
Jason Calacanis: Wow. So what are the chances you think you’ll get to that consumer-level in the next year or two?
Kwindla Kramer: I think we’ll get there in the next year or two, definitely. And I think we’ll get there with partners. We have conversations with some great potential partners, to sort of imbed this stuff in your living room TV, and in other devices.
Jason Calacanis: It almost feels like the Google Plus’s of the world, the Hangouts, are building up to your product suite, so you have no choice but to build down to theirs.
Kwindla Kramer: I think that’s right. And we were really explicit in our modeling, early on 2005-2006 that we were gonna start at the high end price point, and we were gonna push as far as we can to build the general-purpose technology stack that would support this worldview, and we were gonna help prices come down, we were gonna wait for prices to come down, we were gonna benefit from Moore’s Law, and we knew that other people would build up the other way, from the gaming platform price point.
At some point those curves will cross, and our goal is to have built the best possible thing when those curves cross.
Jason Calacanis: Yeah, you’ll be bringing the Ferrari technology to the Prius price.
Kwindla Kramer: Exactly, or the bicycle price really, it has to get there.
Jason Calacanis: Yeah, and with 7” tablets, $149 tablets, this is coming faster than anybody else thought.
Kwindla Kramer: It is, and so the Bill of Materials on a not-quite-accurate-enough depth sensor now is probably like $40. You can’t build that into a tablet. But, three years from now, four years from now, the Bill of Materials on a more accurate version of that sensor will be $4, and you probably can build it into the tablet.
Jason Calacanis: Can you attach it to a tablet today, or no?
Kwindla Kramer: Yeah, and we do that in lab-like uses, and we’ve donated some system to MIT and to USC and to Rhode Island School of Design, and so students there do wild and amazing and beautiful things…
Jason Calacanis: With a tablet with a depth sensor on it.
Kwindla Kramer: With tablets with our tracking components on them.
Jason Calacanis: Sure.
Kwindla Kramer: So they’ve got a system that our big customers pay several hundred thousand dollars for, and they’re super-accurate in terms of being able to track anything you tag, and then they build these beautiful sort of augmented reality multi-screen experiments with them.
Jason Calacanis: Yeah.
Kwindla Kramer: But that’s gonna be possible with consumer-quality sensors, 3-4 years out.
Jason Calacanis: Is augmented reality going to change everything, or is it going to be the equivalent of VRML? Like an interesting hack, but…
Kwindla Kramer: I think it’s gonna be a lot more compelling than VRML in terms of the impact it has on how we use computers every day. I don’t think of augmented reality as changing everything, because I think it’s just one component of building those future interfaces.
Jason Calacanis: Why didn’t virtual reality markup language and virtual reality become a bigger thing? I mean, I guess it is with World of Warcraft and these massively multi-player online games, but people thought that this would be the paradigm and the interface, and in fact it was Mark Pesci and other folks… Jaron Lanier… who was right in that, MIT Media Lab golden era, lets call it… That people thought this would happen. It didn’t. Why?
Kwindla Kramer: I think it’s… You know what my hobby-horses are. I think it’s because virtual reality is really really tough to make multi-user. And we are social animals, and we work together, we play together, we communicate together, and the multi-user components are actually more important than the immersive components. Having said that, VR is going to be a piece of the building blocks of our future, and it’s going to get better and better. But, I don’t want to sit on my living room couch and wear VR glasses to watch a movie.
Jason Calacanis: Right.
Kwindla Kramer: If I’m watching a movie, and I’m by myself in my living room I’m usually washing the dishes or whatever. And if I’m with somebody else in my living room, I really don’t want to be wearing immersive glasses.
So, that’s not to say there aren’t VR use cases, there definitely are. But I don’t think that’s the default use case for digital device and content consumption.
Jason Calacanis: Is transportation a market for you guys, I wonder? Have people said, “Pilots should have this to see in 3D space what they’re doing, and cars should have this… and you know.”
Kwindla Kramer: Well Boeing definitely says that about pilots, as you can imagine, both on the defense and the commercial aircraft side. Aerospace is appropriately conservative about new user interfaces, but there will be increasingly-good heads-up displays that are driven by spatial interfaces as the technology progresses.
Jason Calacanis: I mean, certainly to design the plane, they are using this kind of technology, but to fly the plane?
Kwindla Kramer: I think it’ll happen. I don’t think it’ll happen for fifteen or twenty years because those interfaces should evolve slowly, but I think it’ll happen.
In cars, our goal is actually not to get in the heads-up display, because I think that’s interesting but not as interesting as just being in the dashboard. Like, I have a screen in the dashboard of my relatively low-end car now. And, I have to touch it, and the touchscreen doesn’t work that well, I would much rather use the stuff I have in my lab to drive that screen.
Jason Calacanis: Yeah, it does… And having driven the Tesla Model S which has like basically two iPad 7s in it, or whatever it is, two iPads I guess… for now three weeks, and I’ve put 1000 miles on it, I’m worried a little bit about the interface that it’s so compelling to be on that big screen, that it’s gonna lead to somebody flipping their car. The touchscreen in cars is phenomenal in terms of “the interface can change”, but again, is that an interface you want changing?
Kwindla Kramer: I’m not sure it is. I think part of the answer is if it’s not a touchscreen because a touchscreen is fundamentally sort of biomechanically restrictive, and if you don’t have to touch it, then I think you can design the interfaces to be safer, and to be more flexible.
Jason Calacanis: And how so? You can be a couple inches out from it?
Kwindla Kramer: Yeah, sort of, anywhere in the passenger cockpit, kind of in front of that dashboard space, if we’re tracking your hands you can kinda make things happen.
Jason Calacanis: You could just say volume and then go like this… (gestures to turn volume down) rotate your hand left to right.
Kwindla Kramer: Exactly. No, that’s right. The other interesting thing we’ve done a little bit of prototyping work on, is if you never have to move your hands from the steering wheel, but we know exactly where your fingertips are…
Jason Calacanis: Oh, boy.
Kwindla Kramer: Then you can build some really easy to use, simple, interfaces that are super-safe because you just never take your hands off the wheel.
Jason Calacanis: So then I’m just twirling my right finger in a circle, clockwise or counter-clockwise to affect the volume…
Kwindla Kramer: Yeah, or flicking, whatever turns out to be ergonomically easiest.
Jason Calacanis: Wow, that’s phenomenal–don’t take your hands off the steering wheel.
Kwindla Kramer: Yeah, and if you have a little bit of display in front of the driver’s eyes, or in a heads-up, then you can get interface cues about what to do, so it’s not an expert system.
Jason Calacanis: Corvette had that heads-up interface where it was projecting the speed on the screen, and I always loved it because you didn’t have to look down.
Kwindla Kramer: Yeah.
Jason Calacanis: Why are there not more examples of that? Are people scared of that? They think it’s gonna be more dangerous, you think, or what do you think?
Kwindla Kramer: I think the technology for the sort of holographic imaging element that reflects properly is evolving, but I think as those display elements get cheaper, they will get pretty common.
Jason Calacanis: I’ve got to show this to people, because it’s amazing. This was like a really… (jason searching)
So on this Corvette that I had, five years ago, it would literally project, see there the 55 miles per hour, and it would have your RPMs, and that’s exactly how it looked. I mean, that was Minority Report right there.
Kwindla Kramer: Yeah.
Jason Calacanis: And it doesn’t exist anymore. It would be so much better if these people were reading their text messages on their dashboard.
Kwindla Kramer: Not that you want to encourage that.
Jason Calacanis: I guess that’s the issue. People are reading their texts while they’re driving. So if you put it in a heads-up display like that, you’re encouraging more texts, you’re approving it, but in fact that would be safer, wouldn’t it?
Kwindla Kramer: Well I think you could definitely put all the systems in the car into that interface. Whether you allow general data to flow through that interface, maybe not. But controlling your…
Jason Calacanis: Web browsers, see-through web browsers… drive you crazy…
Kwindla Kramer: Exactly.
Jason Calacanis: Hey, listen, continued success with the company, and I’m assuming this is a big juicy task for designers and engineers, and so, probably a pretty phenomenal place to go and work.
Kwindla Kramer: We try hard to be a great place to work. It’s really important to us.
Jason Calacanis: And you’re in Santa Monica.
Kwindla Kramer: We’re downtown, we’re in downtown LA.
Jason Calacanis: Oh, downtown LA. But you’re in Los Angeles, Southern California.
Kwindla Kramer: We absolutely are.
Jason Calacanis: I’m guessing you recruit pretty great people for this company.
Kwindla Kramer: We do, we pay a lot of attention to recruiting and to hiring, and we’ve built a really great engineering team. And this year, we’re building out a really great commercial team.
Jason Calacanis: Oh, really? Hey listen, so, if you were looking for a gig, big visionary idea, with a successful product in market, and in Southern California–great place to be–I’m guessing you first name at Oblong would work… Since it works for every other CEO on the planet.
Kwindla Kramer: That’s right.
Jason Calacanis: And has for all time.
Thanks so much Hiscox for supporting the program and for providing Startup Companies with just great, affordable insurance. It’s a real big win for everybody. And thanks, to Stamps.com for keeping me out of the post office lines. Boy, that’s a waste of time to go to that post office when you can just do it from home, on your scale, correctly. And yeah… Kwindla… are you @kwindla on Twitter?
Kwindla Kramer: I am.
Jason Calacanis: What is the origin of your name may I ask, it’s K-WIN-D-LA (spells name).
Kwindla Kramer: It’s a Zulu word, it means Autumn.
Jason Calacanis: How did you wind up getting that name?
Kwindla Kramer: My parents are journalists, and they’ve done Africa work since before I was born.
Jason Calacanis: Oh, really, wait, what does it mean?
Kwindla Kramer: It means Autumn, the Fall season.
Jason Calacanis: Wow, it’s an awesome name.
Kwindla Kramer: Thank you. I appreciate that. It’s easy to get the handle on Twitter.
Jason Calacanis: And when you show up and you’re a white guy, people go, “Oh”.
Kwindla Kramer: Sometimes it’s a surprise, yeah.
Jason Calacanis: So it’s a little bit of a surprise.
Kwindla Kramer: Sometimes, yeah.
Jason Calacanis: It’s like my daughter now, she’s half Korean… She looks 100% Korean, you know. But she’s got this Greek name, Calacanis. So people are like, “Oh, you’re… Where’s the Greek girl?” No no no, she’s Korean.
Kwindla Kramer: That’s our melting point though, right?
Jason Calacanis: It’s amazing. And what’s up with Africa? Do you spend a lot of time on Africa and technology there?
Kwindla Kramer: Some time growing up, and I actually dropped out of the Media Lab to help my parents get a media company started called AllAfrica.com, and we were one of the largest distributors of news and information about and from Africa on the web. And that was great. That was a real labor of love. I meant to do AllAfrica for six months, I did it for six years.
Jason Calacanis: Wow.
Kwindla Kramer: And we built a really, I think a really-great double bottom-line business that pushes a lot of revenues back to publishers back in Africa.
Jason Calacanis: Doing good and doing well at the same time.
Kwindla Kramer: Yeah. That’s the goal. Then California called, I had to come out here.
Jason Calacanis: What’s the main issue in Africa today do you think? Is it geopolitical, is it technology, I mean a lot of technologists… I have a lot of friends who are technologists who are sympathetic to the issues in Africa, and then you have Bill Gates, obviously, going after Malaria…
Kwindla Kramer: Doing great work.
Jason Calacanis: Doing just tremendous work, and is it a technology… So many technology people are just applying technology there, but the smartest technologist we all know, Bill Gates is applying medicine.
Kwindla Kramer: Yeah. Well I think political stability and standard of living are the two most important drivers, and if those steadily improve, then the technology comes and fills in, and makes its own kind of difference.
Jason Calacanis: Yeah.
Kwindla Kramer: But technology can be hugely transformative. And you see lots of really interesting stuff going on with mobile phone networks in developing countries, I mean, it’s fascinating.
Jason Calacanis: One Laptop Per Child was such a visionary idea, that the smartphone and the tablet has manifested…
Kwindla Kramer: That’s right, and you’re seeing things like uptake of solar energy, faster in some very undeveloped areas than here…
Jason Calacanis: Mesh networks.
Kwindla Kramer: And mesh networks, yeah, so there’s really good stuff.
Jason Calacanis: Yeah, you’re hopeful then.
Kwindla Kramer: I am. I am fundamentally hopeful, yeah.
Jason Calacanis: About everything, or just Africa?
Kwindla Kramer: About Africa. Not always about everything.
Jason Calacanis: What do you think, the planet going in the right direction, or do you worry? If the planet goes away, what do you think it’s gonna be? Is it going to be us, or is it going to be an asteroid? What’s the #1 thing that’s gonna take this planet and the human species?
Kwindla Kramer: You know I think it’s something close to an obligation to try to be fundamentally hopeful, so I think we just need to keep building the best world we can possibly build, so that we can live in it.
Jason Calacanis: But if the Human race is taken out, what do you think it will be? Will it be our own making? Or will it be some external force? What will it be? The species ending…
Kwindla Kramer: Well we do seem like our own worst enemy, don’t we?
Jason Calacanis: Yeah, we seem to be the species ending… So what would it be? Do you ever think about that?
Kwindla Kramer: Well I think we’re doing a good job heating the planet up, so we’ll see what happens with that. You know, I really admire people who are working on clean tech, because I think it’s really important.
Jason Calacanis: Seems like we could have that all solved right now, doesn’t it? If we just had some will.
Kwindla Kramer: It does. Well, like food security as well. There’s big problems in the world that if we just thought about things a little differently, we could make big progress on.
Jason Calacanis: In Germany, half their electricity came on one day from renewables.
Kwindla Kramer: Yeah, and I think that’s really interesting. I mean, you look at how we invest in utility industry stuff in this country, and we don’t leave a lot of room for things like solar and wind–just economically we don’t leave a lot of room for it.
Jason Calacanis: Why are we not energy independent at this point? All this money on defense? Wars…
Kwindla Kramer: It’s a good question.
Jason Calacanis: We could easily be energy independent.
Kwindla Kramer: I know I’m not supposed to talk too much about politics, right? I’m supposed to be boring and…
Jason Calacanis: It’s the last five minutes of the program… I always leave a little room to get to know…
Kwindla Kramer: Well it’s election season, so everybody’s really excited about these tough, tough, choices.
Jason Calacanis: These politicians can’t get anything done anyway. It’s all us. It’s the technologists and entrepreneurs who wind up getting it done.
Kwindla Kramer: Yeah, and people who make buying decisions. I think you go through the checkout line, and the things you buy actually make a difference in where things are manufactured, and whether things are manufactured using clean energy and all that stuff. I mean I really think the power of the pocketbook is important.
Jason Calacanis: It is pretty fascinating, in Europe they have so much better food, and no hormones in their food, because they just demanded it. And they demanded it here, and they basically got Walmart to carry organic yogurt. Walmart was like, “Wait, these customers want no-hormones in their milk…. They’re the customers, give them what they want.”
Kwindla Kramer: That’s right.
Jason Calacanis: They’re just waiting for the customers to wake up and damand it.
Kwindla Kramer: We do have the power to organize around that kind of stuff, and I think sometimes we forget, but we really do.
Jason Calacanis: Look at McDonalds, they had to put the calorie count on the menu, and they did it voluntarily.
Kwindla Kramer: Yeah.
Jason Calacanis: I mean, it took Supersize Me and a bunch of embarrassment, to get them there, but.
Kwindla Kramer: Little by little, right?
Jason Calacanis: Hey, listen, I love what you’re working on, and continued success, and if you’re… I know a lot of students listen to the program. This is… I don’t like to advocate which startup you should go to, but this is like a really interesting juicy problem if you were getting your masters or your Ph.D. or whatever. I would consider going to Oblong. Pretty cool company. Oblong.com. We’ll see you all next time on This Week in Startups.
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