“The notion of liberating the pixels from the confines of our personal devices, having an immersive canvas so that we are surrounded by all our vital content – that’s the essence of Infopresence.” – Mary Ann de Lares Norris, VP EMEA, Oblong Industries
Oblong Industries is a company founded on the principles of getting organisations to use information in a spatial environment which encourages collaboration across offices and surfaces and ultimately results in positive outcomes.
Last year, MARGINALIA spoke to Oblong Industries to discover how their immersive visual collaboration solution called Mezzanine is disrupting the ways businesses conduct meetings, so that decisions are made faster across time zones. Mezzanine is the end result of many years of research and development – going back as far as the 1990s. Most importantly, it is the incarnation of what Oblong Industries call Infopresence, a term that describes the experience of being immersed as a group in your vital content and data in a room or across locations.
Oblong believes that Infopresence represents the interface of the future of work. MARGINALIA wanted to explore the concept in more detail and its practical applicability inside organisations. In this interview, VP EMEA Mary Ann de Lares Norris, describes the origins of the term Infopresence, shares its core characteristics as well as imperatives, the impact on the way employees experience their workspace and how leading companies are already benefiting from it. Plus, the reasons why organisations should think about investing in Infopresence.
Gloria Lombardi: What is Infopresence exactly?
Mary Ann de Lares Norris: Infopresence is the experience of being immersed as a group in your vital content and data both in a room as well as across locations. Infopresence is a paradigm shift in how we work. It is about taking the repository of our private workspaces – which include laptops, tablets, and mobile phones – and having a massive canvas in which to immerse not only ourselves but also whoever is with us in the room, or at a connected distance, in the same data. Ultimately, we can make data-driven decisions as a group faster, in a way that we couldn’t if we just had a conversation or talked over video.
GL: Tell me more about the origins of the term Infopresence.
MAN: The word Infopresence was coined by Oblong in 2013. It is about elevating the word informationinto the notion of presence.
For a long time, people have talked about immersive telepresence. At Oblong, we believe that telepresence is not the word that describes the future of work. Infopresence is a completely new experience. Today, work is mediated by digital data. We have so much information – it’s an imperative that, as business people, we use our data to make data-driven decisions.
So, it is really about bringing the next generation of human user interface that is data-centric into the workplace.
GL: How can we recognise that we are in front of Infopresence?
MAN:When you’re surrounded by everyone’s contributed information. Infopresence is defined by real-time collaboration among the users using different devices, across different surfaces from different sources, whether they are documents, online videos, drawings, or whiteboard notes as well as different office locations.
It is an immersive experience where people, content and various data inputs all come together simultaneously in a shared workspace, whether the users are in the actual physical meeting room or not. People communicate on, and benefit from, rich and immersive canvases of information and are able to contextualise, process and act on that information. The data becomes physical and spatial in that it can be moved from one canvas to another and edited in real-time, allowing decisions to be made and actions to be taken during the meeting.
GL: What’s the impact of Infopresence on the way employees experience their workspace?
MAN: Infopresence redefines the concept of space. Our personal computers are personal. Nothing is more personal than our telephone: we keep it in our pocket, in our purse. And we need a way to make the personal visible to everyone’s in the room to make informed decisions. The notion of liberating the pixels from the confines of our personal devices, having an immersive canvas so that we are surrounded by all our vital content – that’s the essence of Infopresence.
In fact, our goal at Oblong is to change the way everyone works with their computers and devices by enabling people to easily deliver content from their personal devices into a public space.” Our founder, John Underkoffler, conceptualised the interface in his early research at MIT Media Lab in the 1990’s. He had in mind this notion of emancipating the pixels locked in the towers of the personal PC. His vision was to spread the pixels all around our physical space. For him, the way we interact with our digital data should be as natural to us as we interact with the actual physical world.
GL: Does Infopresence relate in some ways to mixed reality or Virtual Reality (VR)? I think about the ability to teletransport ourselves into a virtual reality world.
MAN: With VR you put a headset in front of your eyes that puts you into a virtual space – you can do things in that virtual space that you cannot do in the real life. For example, you are in your office in London, you wear the Google Cardboard and you can walk along the Great Wall in China. It is about immersing yourself in lots of pixels that enable you to have a different kind of experience. Immersion is one of the core characteristics of VR – you are immersing yourself into an environment that is completely digitally manufactured.
Infopresence shares the characteristics with VR in terms of the immersion. But with Infopresence you immerse yourself as an individual or as a group with vital content and data while you are still in the physical world. And because of the physical world, it is easier for you to share that space with others. You can, of course, be in a multi-player and multi-person VR experience. But we, as humans, do not have a lot of experience of navigating communications with other people in a virtual reality environment. We are much better at interacting with other humans in the real space, having our vital content and data surrounding us and interacting with that data in the real space while being able to interact with our fellow humans in that real space.
GL: The practical applicability of Infopresence by Oblong is Mezzanine, an immersive collaboration platform for the enterprise that extends the physical office environment and meeting room across screens, devices and geographies.
MAN: That’s correct. Mezzanine is the embodiment of this idea as applied to today’s enterprise. Mezzanine is built upon a spatial operating environment call g-speak. g-speak is the technological underpinning, the core platform that allows Mezzanine to provide a special immersion in all our vital content and data in the meeting room and across distances.
GL: Which industries are more advanced when it comes to understanding and capturing the benefits of Infopresence?
MAN: There is a lot of adoption of the notion of Infopresence among the professional services/consulting industry. For example Accenture or PwC. Professional services firms are often brought into organisations to be the change agents for their clients, to get them think about their business practices differently, to think about bringing innovative solutions to the workplace with the goal of adding value to their core business.
GL: ‘Infopresence is the future of work,’ you say. So, could we end this interview with three top reasons whys organisations should really consider investing on Infopresence?
MAN: Value, for one. Organisations are spending a huge amount of resources – both human capital and infrastructure – on data collection. There is a tremendous amount of data surrounding us and organisations have to harness the value of that data. Our perspective at Oblong is that Infopresence is a way for organisations to maximise the return on investment that they have already made in the vast amount of information that they are gathering from their core business. And, allowing the people who work in the organisation to make data-driven decisions in a more timely manner, identifying insights more quickly. So with Infopresence the organizations have a better return on their two most expensive assets, people and infrastructure.
Secondly, the changing demographics of the workplace. Organisations need to adopt new practices that match the behaviours of their workforces. In 2015, the Millennial generation became the largest age group in the workforce. This is a generation that grew up with devices in their hands. They grew up with digital information. Millennials expect and demand to have all of their applications and data as an integral part of their workflow. Infopresence gives Millennials this large canvas which they can be very comfortable working with. Additionally, research shows that Millennials want to have a voice at the table. And Infopresence allows a group to come together – everyone shares their data with others simultaneously. Twenty years ago, the person who was speaking up during a meeting often was the person who had the highest rank in the organisation. Today, that is no longer the way people expect to work.
The third imperative is the fact that today’s companies – even the small ones – are dispersed around the world. They are distributed organisations with offices in various places. So, to retain their talent and to be successful, companies have to maximise the ability of their teams to collaborate and communicate seamlessly across different locations in the everyday job – Infopresence allows them to do just that.