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Sci-fi becomes the new reality

MIT’s Media Lab is seeking everyday uses for high-tech breakthroughs

By D.C. Denison
Globe Staff / July 5, 2010

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One wallet becomes more difficult to open as its owner’s bank account runs low on money; another wallet swells and shrinks, depending on the available cash; a third buzzes when there’s any kind of movement in the account.

These “proverbial wallets’’ — objects that react to information that is stored and transmitted digitally — are being created at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Laboratory, and represent a new direction toward technology that exists not only online, but in the physical world.

Henry Holtzman, director of the research group creating the wallets, explained that they use embedded technology to connect to an owner’s bank via a Bluetooth signal from an Internet-connected cellphone or computer. “This is a way to make something that doesn’t have any physical properties, like a bank account, feel more physical,’’ he said.

The research group is also exploring creative uses for low-cost 3D scanners and printers that can “read’’ a solid object and produce a copy and are expected to be widely available within a few years. The group has a demonstration it calls “Eat Your Face.’’ They scan someone’s face in three dimensions, then mill a replica from dark chocolate. The fanciful idea hints at the kind of personalized, custom products that could be available when inexpensive versions of these machines are commonplace.

New projects at the influential lab, which has doubled its space with the opening of a new building in March, now connect digital technology to the “real’’ world of medical offices, retail spaces, homes, and pants pockets.

The lab’s research is sponsored by major corporations like Samsung Electronics Co. and Bank of America. There is a new awareness that many technologies need to synch up with business interests to thrive, either by meeting a business need or enabling researchers to start their companies after leaving the Media Lab.

Some of these changes are a result of the influence of Frank Moss, whose five-year term as the lab’s director comes to an end in February. Moss, a former high tech executive, informed the staff in an e-mail message late last week that he intends to step down at the end of his contract. But according to Moss, the changes in the lab’s focus have more to do with the evolution of people’s relationship with technology.

“When the lab opened in 1985, there was a certain feeling of science fiction about this place,’’ he said. “Even as recently as ten years ago, people didn’t really understand the impact of all this technology on our lives, so there was a lot of exploration. But now we’re working on projects that will have a more tangible impact.’’

Moss said the technologies developed in the lab “are not just cooler things. Instead, they allow people to take better control of their lives.’’

Holtzman, who joined the original Media Laboratory as a researcher in 1985, stepped from his research lab out into the third-floor lobby and cited the design of the new building as a metaphor for its evolving philosophy. The facility’s open, glass-and-aluminum design features views into a variety of research groups. The old Media Lab building was dark, segmented, and nearly windowless.

“This building says, ‘no barriers,’ ’’ Holtzman said, as he gestured at the many glass-walled labs overlooking the main atrium. “There’s a level of transparency that hasn’t been here before. What’s going on, it wants to be seen.’’

Another project that reflects the Media Lab’s new approach is the Glass Infrastructure, a network of 30 touch-sensitive screens placed throughout the facility. The screens recognize employees and visitors by their identification tags. The system then helps to guide individuals around the building, and provides background and contextual information on the people and projects they might encounter.

Holtzman said the screens are a way “to make our website tangible. When you go online to investigate a company, there’s a tremendous amount of information available. But present yourself in person, and you have to find people to help you out. This system helps bridge that gap.’’

The New Media Medicine group, located a flight below Holtzman’s lab, doesn’t look particularly high tech by comparison. It has a doctor’s office area, with an examination table, and a traditional living room, complete with a comfortable couch. He said that part of his group’s mission is to enable patients to work alongside their doctors and share information, instead of taking a passive role.

“Think about a typical office visit: The doctor is looking at your information, and you don’t see it at all,’’ Moss said.

A project called CollaboRhythm, attempts to bring doctor and patient together with a platform that enables a patient to access medical information, and the physician, via a variety of devices, including a teleconferencing unit. CollaboRhythm uses enhanced access to give the patient more ownership of medical information, and more frequent advice from medical professionals.

“The goal is to allow people to take more control of their lives,’’ Moss said. “That’s an approach that can be applied to other areas as well, like personal finance.’’

Moss has been leading the New Media Medicine group in addition to directing the lab. Last week, in his e-mail to the staff, he said he hopes to maintain a relationship with the group, which has 10 ongoing projects at the intersection of technology and health, and has already partnered with a number of medical institutions.

Moss said he has been exploring how research can be created for corporate sponsors or brought to market by start-up companies founded by Media Lab alumni.

Cognitive Machines is one group that Moss thinks has commercial spinoff potential. On a recent visit to the group, research assistant Philip DeCamp navigated through an interactive video project that documents the first three years of a child’s life, captured by 11 cameras and 14 microphones placed in the home. Called the Human Speechome Project, it was designed to investigate language acquisition. But Moss said it has splintered into projects on how people relate to physical space, how to generate interactive, 3D reconstructions of recorded events, and how to use similar data collection techniques to enable the early detection of learning disabilities. The technology has also been developed into studies about how retail customers interact with stores and sales staffs.

“This started out about how kids learn language, but it has led to a lot of different things around the relationship between people and physical space,’’ Moss said.

“And there may even be some opportunities for business,’’ he added. “All that together is what we’re going for here.’’

D.C. Denison can be reached at denison@globe.com.

MIT's unique creations

MIT's unique creations

Researchers work on odd products at MIT's Media Lab.