John worked on Minority Report after finishing his PhD at the MIT Media Lab. Read on how he parlayed that experience into a supercool company that is scaling nicely, while reinventing collaboration.
Sramana Mitra: Where are you from? Where were you born, raised and in what kind of background?
John Underkoffler: I was born in a hospital in Philadelphia but from the time I was a few months old until I left for college, I lived in a very small town in Southeastern Pennsylvania. My parents had bought a farm. I grew up in a non-working farm, but it was populated with lots and lots of creatures and that kind of proximity to nature had a big effect on my design practice in later years.
Sramana Mitra: You grew up on the farm till you went to college?
John Underkoffler: That’s right.
Sramana Mitra: Where did you go to college?
John Underkoffler: I went to MIT. When I was 12, my parents sent me up to spend a week with my father’s younger sister. She was a Bohemian aunt who lived in Massachusetts right next to Cambridge. Ironically, she would later become the first Product Manager for VisiCalc – the world’s first electronic spreadsheet. At that time, she was pursuing various jobs and an MBA at the same time.
Among the various other things we did together was to take a long bus ride with a bunch of exchanges with big piles of documents to a place I had never been to before. It turned out my aunt was also earning a little extra cash by doing calligraphy for the diplomas at MIT. We went to MIT and she said, “You have to come see this.” We went up three sets of stairs. We were on the fourth floor. She took me to, what I now know, as Strobe Alley. In that exact moment, I knew that I had to be there and nowhere else.
Sramana Mitra: What years were you at MIT?
John Underkoffler: I was there from 1984 to 2000.
Sramana Mitra: Interesting. I was at MIT as a grad student too.
John Underkoffler: You did a Master’s?
Sramana Mitra: I did a Master’s in EECS, but I left to start my first company. It was the beginning of the Internet.
John Underkoffler: Good move.
Sramana Mitra: I left and became a serial entrepreneur.
John Underkoffler: I arrived at MIT in 1984 shortly before the Media Lab opened its doors. If anything, that was the seminal event and location for the next many years of my life. It was a uniquely interdisciplinary lab. The genius of what they had done was to say that computers was about communication. To prove that, they got together an unbelievable collection of not just computer scientists, but also architects and documentary filmmakers. That’s a thread we’ve never let go of here at Oblong.