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‘Wormhole’ links MIT and Stanford

Neal Soderquist at Stanford University talks to Michael L. Leoncini, left, and Hovig Tomarci at MIT via the 'wormhole.' Neal Soderquist at Stanford University talks to Michael L. Leoncini, left, and Hovig Tomarci at MIT via the "wormhole." (Kevin Brown for The Boston Globe)
By Karen Weintraub
Globe Correspondent / August 22, 2011

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In a Massachusetts Institute of Technology cafeteria, down the hall from an early radar dish, is the “wormhole,’’ an oddly-shaped plexiglass dome hovering over a video screen. The live signal displayed on the screen shows a similar cafeteria scene at Stanford University, nearly 3,000 miles away in California.

The designers of the installation, who call it the wormhole, say it is meant to encourage random encounters between students and staff at two of the country’s premier technology-oriented universities.

Someone at MIT’s Stata Center for Computer, Information, and Intelligence Sciences, hungry for lunch and conversation, will be able to chat under the dome with a stranger who’s grabbing a morning coffee in Stanford’s Huang Engineering Center. Casual meetings can be held at the wormhole. New ideas may be spurred, new science inspired.

But what it looks like, just a bit, is the cone of silence, the hilariously ineffective hunk of technology from the 1960s TV comedy “Get Smart.’’

The wormhole has one advantage over the sitcom version. It works, or at least it should be working by next week, when students start arriving.

Dorian Gangloff, a PhD student in atomic physics, said he thought the wormhole looked like a 1960s version of somebody’s idea of the future. The idea of a modern-age link with Stanford seemed fun and original, he said. And he might try it, he said, to catch up with a friend at Stanford or to meet someone new.

The idea behind the wormhole was spurred by the identical names of the cafes where both sides of the device sit. Bert and Candace Forbes, who founded and sold a successful circuit board company to Intel in 2000, donated money for cafes on both campuses - each called the Forbes Family Cafe - and for the two devices at either end of the wormhole.

Bert was from the MIT Class of 1966 and went to Stanford for graduate school; Candace also attended Stanford, as did their son. Theirs was a small family-run company. (They are not related to “the very, very rich’’ magazine-owning Forbes clan, Candace said.) That’s why they wanted “family cafes’’ at each school, and why they love the idea of people connecting with each other from different campuses.

“It’s kind of like a foreign-exchange program for each end of the country,’’ Bert said, adding that talking face-to-face beats the texting that he sees young people doing too often.

“Just sparking conversation is pretty cool,’’ Candace added.

But the original idea, to set up a microphone and a video screen, would not have worked in two of the most technologically innovative places on earth.

“You can’t just put a mic on table and have communication take place. No one would be able to hear, and you won’t be able to be heard,’’ said Kevin Brown, an MIT alumnus and audio engineer who was called in to solve the technical problem.

Brown, president of Brown Innovations of Boston, came up with the idea of putting one dome above the table and another below, to capture and focus the voices and help filter out background noise.

The overhead dome has three speakers that bounce the sound off the dome and focus it toward the diners; below are three microphones positioned to collect sound from people’s mouths. The shapes of the domes create a whisper chamber-type effect, where sound is focused and directed to the listener’s ear. Brown initially rejected the idea of an overhead dome - “I realized the easiest way to do this seemed a little ridiculous,’’ he said - but he came back to it in the end as the best solution.

There were other snags.

The design consultants on the West Coast did not want to slice into one of their fancy new cafe tables to embed the bottom dome.

They thought a microphone placed on the table would do just as well, even if it did look more like a witness stand than a place for casual conversation. But they tried it out and quickly realized Brown was right. They called him asking for the domes, as long as they could install them themselves.

Brian D. Carilli, the Stanford lab designer who proposed the wormhole, acknowledged that some of it might be a bit overdesigned. He said he should have reined in his “technoweenie’’ consultants a bit more and spent a lot less than $15,000 on the camera on his end. The real innovation is the audio system, not the camera, he said.

“We could’ve done this a lot differently, and saved a lot of money, but you’ve got to try,’’ Carilli said. “Now we’ve sort of worked it out.’’

And you could not get the same result with two laptops and Skype, the Internet video-calling service, because there would not be the quality that makes casual conversations in the cafe atmosphere possible.

Carilli, Brown, and the Forbeses envision a bright future for their tables. Bert said he might consider funding more wormholes at Stanford campuses around the world and at other universities the couple supports. Brown said that when he showed the table to friends, they were “crazy excited about the possibility of having things like this in coffee shops, where you could transport yourself to a specific table at another coffee shop.’’

But there’s one shortcoming, Bert Forbes said: It can’t bridge space and time. “They haven’t gotten that part quite worked out yet,’’ he said.