Boston Tech Party: The Wonders of the MIT Media Lab


by Linda Rodriguez McRobbie

Want to know who to thank for Guitar Hero and the Kindle? You'll need to head to Boston, where a new American revolution is taking place.

The Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is the kind of place that makes you think the future might not be so scary after all. Instead of being a wasteland overrun by machines hell-bent on human destruction, the students here are encouraged to build the kind of future they want to see. And that's more likely to mean a world full of Star Trek gadgets and friendly robots that want to make you a cup of fair-trade coffee.

The Media Lab is an elite graduate program at MIT, and since it opened in 1985, it's been changing the way people interact with machines. Innovators here were tinkering with social networking long before Facebook, and they thought up motion-capture filming well before Gollum was creeping around in Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings. Without the Media Lab, Guitar Hero wouldn't exist, and neither would the Kindle. The idea that every child in the world should have a laptop—the One Laptop Per Child initiative—well, that was born in the Media Lab, too. Right now, the Lab is filled with fur-covered robots and jumbles of electronics, all of which have an impressive chance of becoming the next big thing.

In the Beginning"¦

The idea of the Media Lab was conceived in the 1980s by two MIT professors, Jerome Wiesner and Nicholas Negroponte.

After World War II, Wiesner worked at Los Alamos in New Mexico, where he helped the United States military build nuclear weapons. He walked away from the experience committed to the idea that technology needed to be used to build a better future, not a more terrifying one. He went on to become President Kennedy's science advisor, during which time he helped Rachel Carson prove that DDT was damaging to the environment. In 1971, Wiesner became MIT's president. The Lab's other founder, Nicholas Negroponte, studied at MIT, where he was one of the first people to focus on computer-aided architectural design. He joined the faculty in 1967, at just 23 years old, and immediately went to work creating a think-tank to study how people interact with computers.

In 1985, Wiesner and Negroponte joined forces to create the Media Lab, a kind of play space for talented people of all disciplines—arts, sciences, computer technology, engineering, architecture, and urban planning. The hope was to solve the world's needs by bringing together people with unique backgrounds. For its launch, the duo managed to secure more than $45 million in funding. (It was enough money to lure architect I.M. Pei, the guy who built the giant pyramid at the Louvre, to design the Lab's first headquarters.) Next, they concentrated on recruiting misfits, people who didn't seem to belong within the rigid confines of academia; Negroponte called it a "salon des refuses."

One of these misfits was Tod Machover, a Juilliard-trained composer with a deep interest in computers. In 1985, he started a lab within the Media Lab called Hyperinstruments. Machover's goal was to create new technology that could turn music into "as positive and creative a part of people's lives as possible." Within a few years, he'd already seen tangible results. His lab had built a fleet of musical robots and created new interactive instruments for performers as varied as Penn & Teller, Yo-Yo Ma, and Peter Gabriel. They'd also produced groundbreaking software called Hyperscore, which allowed children to create original music without any prior musical training.

Most remarkably, Machover's lab gave rise to Guitar Hero, a series of musical video games that have grossed more than $2 billion worldwide and have led to a whole new genre of rhythm-based games. It all started in the 1990s, when researchers Alex Rigopulos and Eran Egozy were working in Machover's lab and built a computer program that allowed users to improvise pop-music solos with joysticks. After they graduated from the Media Lab, they created Harmonix in 1995, the software company behind Guitar Hero and Rock Band. The games utilize the same basic computer programs they invented under Machover, but instead of improvising, players try to follow music as closely as possible in the context of a game. In addition to making Rigopulos and Egozy rich (MTV Networks bought Harmonix for $175 million in 2006), both Guitar Hero and Rock Band fulfill Machover's promise of making music fun and accessible for everyone.

Money, Money, Money

One of the biggest ideas to come out of this model has been electronic ink, better known as E ink. At the time of its development in the late 1990s, 75 MediaLab sponsor companies backed the E ink project, which was referred to as "the last book." E ink technology is pretty fascinating: A page is embedded with black and white microcapsule spheres, and when an electronic charge is applied to the page, the spheres move to the surface, forming letters. Today, E ink is commonly used in many e-readers, including the Barnes & Noble Nook and the Amazon Kindle. As of 2009, 1.5 million Kindles have been sold worldwide, and the next generation of e-readers—which hope to do for newspapers and magazines what the first generation did for books—is already on its way to market.

Golden Labs

Guitar Hero and E ink are just two of the many incredible inventions to come out the Media Lab. But the Lab does more than just produce cool gadgets; it's also about nurturing creativity and bringing people together to benefit humanity. In 2005, Negroponte left the Lab to launch the One Laptop Per Child initiative, a nonprofit organization devoted to putting laptops in the hands of impoverished children across the world—children who, in most cases, can barely afford books. Small and durable, the XO laptops run on hand-crank power and have special screens that are visible in direct sunlight, for children who go to school outdoors. Thanks to the program, nearly 2 million kids in countries from Haiti to Afghanistan now have computers.

During the past 25 years, the Media Lab has seen its share of imitators. On the West Coast, there's the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology, or Calit2, a research consortium run jointly by UC Berkeley and UC San Diego. Founded in 2000, Calit2 runs along similar rails as the Media Lab. It pursues innovation through interdisciplinary cooperation, always with an eye toward product development. And it, too, has developed a number of headline-grabbing inventions, including the Einstein Robot, a hyper-realistic automaton that can respond to and mimic human emotions.

Calit2 and other research institutions are putting pressure on the Media Lab to stay in the game. In response, the Media Lab strives to come up with what Negroponte calls "pre-competitive ideas," visions that are 10 or 15 years ahead of their time. Under Frank Moss, the Lab's current director, the program has sharpened its focus to deal with major social issues, such as poverty and disease. It's also building new communication tools to help people with autism, and it's creating new social-networking devices to aid in healthcare.

Of course, while the students and faculty inside the Lab are always looking ahead, the Lab's exterior has been stuck in the past. That is, until recently. In 2007, the grad program hired award-winning architect Fumihiko Maki to design its current headquarters—a stunning structure of metal and glass that looks and feels like it comes from a better world. Today, the MIT Media Lab is everything you'd expect from a birthplace for innovation. The building's giant windows make it easy for anyone to look inside and sneak a peek into the future.

Welcome to the Future! The Media Lab is always coming out with nifty ideas that are going to revolutionize the way the world works. What's it seeing in our future now? Robot Skin The Media Lab is currently working with an engineering group in Britain to build "skin" for robots. The new exterior would allow robots to sense when they've been touched and determine the pressure of the contact. The idea is to build machines that can interact with humans on a whole new level. A Personal Food Factory This device is something that Star Trek fans have been anticipating ever since Captain Picard said, "Tea, Earl Grey, hot." It's a computerized food processor that will make entire meals by blending together your favorite ingredients and then "printing them out." Developed by the Fluid Interfaces Group at the Media Lab, the device isn't ready yet, but it could be soon. Better Ankles Researchers at the Media Lab are currently pioneering "smart" prostheses that mimic the body's natural motion. In 2007, researchers in the biomechatronics lab unveiled the world's first robotic ankle, now being commercialized and brought to amputees the world over. The new robotic ankle employs an electric motor and tendon-like springs, which resemble the body's natural architecture, thus minimizing fatigue and improving balance. And it really works! The biophysicist leading the research, Dr. Hugh Herr, has been a double amputee since the age of 17. He proudly, and successfully, tested the new motorized ankle on himself. A Sixth Sense Who says computers need to be tied to a monitor and keyboard? That's so last decade. SixthSense is a small interface that will allow computers to read your hand gestures and arm movements. For example, if you draw the @ symbol into the air, SixthSense will tell the computer to open your email. The device works by projecting digital information into the three-dimensional world and then receiving digital information back. In other words, it turns your room into a giant computer. The coolest part? The prototype only cost $350 to build.

This article originally appeared in mental_floss magazine. If you're in a subscribing mood, here are all the details.