Despite decades of earnest technological advances, meetings generally remain as unsatisfying as they are unproductive. The culprit is the meeting room model of a single computer hooked up to a projector, which forces participants to work in sequence rather than in tandem. This stymies collaboration and channels meetings into a presenter-driven dynamic, where each person must wait their turn to load up their material or use the mouse.
Whiteboarding and application sharing can restore some of the sense of mutuality and participation, but they typically limit the collaboration to one document or application at a time. It can also be difficult for participants to incorporate materials that they've prepared in advance of the meeting into the collaborative session.
In teleconferences and virtual meetings—even in high-end telepresence environments—the problems are amplified by the inevitable fifteen minutes of troubleshooting and verifying connections, and the disconnection that remote participants experience by not being in the room.
So we have a consensus: meetings suck. Can we adjourn now?
Not so fast. Mezzanine, an innovative new technology from Los Angeles-based startup Oblong Industries, promises a cure for the common meeting with a feature set straight out of a science fiction movie.
Imagine this: Participants walk into a meeting room outfitted with a series of large flat-panel monitors on every wall creating a display surface nearly a dozen feet long and three feet high. Additional monitors in vertical aspect are mounted on adjoining walls. Attendees attach their laptops, iPads, SmartPhones or any device with a video output to one head of an octopus-like connection cable (or, perhaps someday soon, through a wireless technology).
All the video signals are aggregated across the series of displays, which function as a single interactive workspace. Additional input sources can come from remote participants, video cameras positioned around the room, whiteboards, Web-based or networked media, or applications running elsewhere.
To control the display, participants reach for one of several three-sided control wands, shaped like Toblerone chocolate bars, with a button on each of the three faces. The wands allow anyone to select, highlight, zoom and manipulate any of the media elements on the main display, or move any media to one of several auxiliary displays on either facing wall of the room, using natural gestures in 3D space. Rotating the control wand longitudinally changes the functionality from manipulating media elements to being able to select and marquee items within each element, or reaching through the display to the underlying functionality of the application.
In the Mezzanine demo I attended, the presenter showed how this might work in an industrial design setting. Several of the laptops in the room were running a 3D modeling application, where any participant could manipulate the perspective on the 3D model, change colors and shapes, or use any of the features of the design software live, in the meeting, just using the wand. This display was juxtaposed with charts of market data (and, the presenter said, potentially the output of a real-time ERP dashboard) running on one of the other PCs in the room. At the same time, live video from multiple sources showed different remote participants, all with equal access to the Mezzanine display through their computers or mobile devices. A second camera pointed to the whiteboard in the room, which was also represented and captured on the main display.
Using the wands or a representation of the workspace on their individual devices, everyone in the meeting—including remote participants—has equal ability to share their data, comment or modify data being presented, or bring any information to the attention of others by stepping it forward on the display.
If this all sounds like something from Minority Report, that's no coincidence. Mezzanine grew out of the G-Speak technology invented by MIT MediaLab alumnus and TED-talker John Underkoffler, who was a technical advisor on that 2002 film.
In its current incarnation, Mezzanine is a little pricey to be mainstream technology, but the trajectory of innovation suggests it will be within the reach of mortals by the middle of the decade. And when that happens, we can adjourn tired old-style meetings once and for all.