June 24, 2015

Beyond Being There: Online Collaboration in the Heightened Reality

Sebastian Sjoberg

Sebastian Sjoberg is an anthropologist, explorer and entrepreneur. His focus is to design, facilitate and accelerate exponential innovation via the 10X Labs platform.

Online Collaboration

We are fortunate to live in a global economy driven by ever accelerating change.

Those who stand to win are the people that are able to quickly act upon ideas and seize (seemingly) unlikely opportunities together with those smitten by the same belief system. To have access to this, in combination with appropriate funding, all within one ecosystem is to have a decent shot at successfully directing change and innovation to where you want it.

So, if we’re currently living through humanity’s Second Renaissance — today’s Florence must be Silicon Valley, with which few other places (if any) can compete. If you want to play the startup game with the best, you travel to the Bay Area and join the long line of entrepreneurs. That is perhaps the most fiercely competitive space for software innovation on the planet, and yet thousands of people do it everyday because they want to have close proximity to a lot of others who share the same set of beliefs within a conveniently dense area. Indisputably, that has yielded more serendipitous innovation per capita than any other context.

Microsoft Hololens
Microsoft Hololens

Heightened Reality as a Commodity

However, Oculus just presented their consumer product and Microsoft will unveil the Hololens within the year. Existing services like Slack, Skype, Hangout and MURAL already have begun to empower teams to effectively do digitally what up until now has required physical presence. This all begs the question, can and will the serendipity vortex of the Valley be virtualized?

The way we look at it, it is a question of technology. The immensely disruptive effect of online communication stands undisputed even among the most zealous of Luddites. Yet, when it comes to high fidelity immersive digital experiences we have seen very little outside the realm of gaming. World of Warcraft, the row of Call of Duties, Minecraft etc are all hard-working pistons in the ‘awesome engine’ that drives innovation of tech that create heightened realities — but these experiences remain within confines of games.

This year and heading into the next, we will see the branch of technology known to us for a long time as Virtual Reality go from deceptive to disruptive, and quickly sprint towards becoming as democratized as smart phones. Billions of people will possess the opportunity to not only work together in a myriad of Google Docs, but to join whichever tribe of belonging they call home in an extremely compelling virtual space. What is easily foreseeable is how this will make Minecraft more fun to play for those who seek it, but what is less obvious to imagine is how the same technology will evolve online collaboration.

When your team’s Slack channel is not merely a lip-glossed version of IRC from the 90's (not saying that’s a bad thing) but a virtual world on par with this, will physical distance in geographical terms be made irrelevant?

Virtual Spaces Disrupting Distance

My co-founders and I recently launched what we refer to as a design initiative for accelerated change which we call 10x Labs. We seek to accelerate the innovation and deployment of solutions to the world’s most grand challenges, at scale, by working with titans of industry in different verticals.

By providing a corporate-agnostic skunk works that facilitates the pursuit of exponential improvement, guided by curiosity and courage, we want to meaningfully contribute to the ongoing Second Renaissance. Furthermore, we want to do so effectively despite spending most of our time a world removed from Florence, in the physical space.

Working remotely within an already functioning team is arguably a solved problem, for those willing to weave their own mosaic workflow out of the many services out there. If you already know each other and/or share the same company culture, getting work done across distances in time and space is quite manageable.

The unconquered frontier, as we see it in 10X Labs, is how to effectively craft a bridgehead between new groups of people using only digital channels. How do you facilitate collaboration, not to mention exponential innovation, from the far side of the world? That is an attractively hard problem.

We use MURAL to bridge the gap between us and those we meet. This creates a literal virtual space that fills the void between the thousand bullet points stored on Google Drive and the rare physical meetings we have with our meandering network of global collaborators. MURAL is at the very least the shared whiteboard in the cloud that never gets erased, and that fully utilizes what can only be done in the digital realm.

Above and beyond that, it is an enterprise oriented collaboration suite that makes it easier to conduct and partake in meaningful online workshops and facilitated learning experiences. During our last visit to Stanford University a few weeks ago, we got a sneak peak of what lies ahead for the MURAL platform by CEO Mariano Suarez-Battan. That alone made me buy a Microsoft Surface tablet. Who’d have thought it?

Lean UX template
Lean UX Template, using MURAL

The Collective Intelligence of Billions

There is no doubt in our minds that meeting in person, in the fully analog sense, will remain the premium experience in all aspects of human interaction. We are however equally convinced, and excited by, how the next best thing — meeting and collaborating in the digital sphere — will become better by orders of magnitude through the democratization of technology.

More importantly, we believe that this will be good enough to do most things well — effectively making geographical proximity and density an anachronism, or at the very least a luxury and not a necessity for innovation. That is not the case today, but right now it is possible to embark on a design journey that will enable us to build those tools based on what we have today.

MURAL in virtual reality will be a disruptive experience indeed.

10X Labs is geographically based in the ‘Sunny Side of Siberia’, far far away from everywhere else. To us, it is a tech monastery on a proverbial mountain top, deep within the wilderness at the end of the path less traveled. Few people come here, but those who do are passionate about accelerated learning away from the normal vortex. If you want to practice your kung fu, so to speak, in peace for a short but intense period of time together with a small band of similarly minded mavericks — we have a place for that, and a nice view as well. For everything else, and that are most things, there is the virtual space and it’s becoming more and more colorful every day.

We love visiting the Valley, as well as all the other places where people gather to do what is more than incremental. Having said that, the core insight that led us to create 10X Labs is that within less than five years there will be more than five billion people online. The connected collective human intelligence can never share the same physical space, but there is infinite room in the virtual world. There we can add exponential value and help accelerate sustainable change, even from our corner of the globe.

Connected collaboration at scale will feel the same as it always has, but look a lot different as the edges of the world and the ‘nowhere places’ join the global conversation. Old doctrines will be challenged by new diversity, current monopolies of ideas will give way to new intellectual contagion that spread virally. That is the adventure ahead.

There is only Make

In these exciting times, we’re exploring the frontier of bringing ‘heightened realities’ out from the world of virtual reality gaming and into the realm of professional collaboration. It will have a most disruptive impact upon a great many things, we dare believe. In anticipation of (rapidly approaching) better tech, we use Google Cardboard to easily and cheaply understand and design for VR. It works like this, is arguably pretty cool, and above all it’s a great prototyping learning tool.

If you feel intrigued by the idea of liberating serendipity out of its shackles that are physical proximity and density, do connect. We’d love to explore and collaborate together.

This post was inspired by a recent blog by Peter Diamandis of X Price, Singularity University, Planetary Resources and more.

Thanks to my co-founders Tobias & Andreas for help in sculpting this message. Equally, thanks to Lars Cosh-Ishii and Jim Kalbach for inspiring conversations.


We at MURAL would like to thank Sebastian for this guest post. If you would like to contribute to our blog, contact Jim.