The Massachusetts Institute of Technology may be the birthplace of the American geek. Within MIT, its Media Lab drills down to the heart of the next wave of technology from creating buildings with 3D printing to prosthetic limbs to gesture-based user interfaces. For instance, the MIT Media Lab was where the idea for the technology seen in the movie Minority Report originated.
The unofficial motto of the MIT Media Lab is “demo or die.” It is akin to the classic academic model of “publish or perish,” except that students and faculty at the Media Lab are encouraged to actually create the products they are thinking up, as opposed to pontificating upon them in research papers. See below to check out some of the amazing waves of technology that will be bursting out of the Media Lab in the future.
Interactive Robots & Holographic Imaging
The phrase “these are not the droids you are looking for” keeps passing through my brain when I think of the robots that are being created at the Media Lab. Two prominent examples are MDS prototypes – mobile, dexterous and social. See the picture of the two robots below. They can move about, have hands that can interact with the world around them and show a range of emotion by being social.
There is a little orange robot called Combusto. It can show emotion and has a wide array of movement. Think Wall-E with fur. Combusto is powered with an Android smartphone that has a unique chipboard in it that helps determines Combusto’s functions.
Right next to the robot lab, there is a team working on holographic 3D imaging. Another line from Star Wars comes to mind: “Help me Obi-Wan Kenobi, you are my only hope.” One of the goals for the holographic imaging team would be to make it feasible to make those Star Wars-style holographs a reality.
Throughout the Media Lab, students, researchers and faculty are using the Microsoft Kinect for gesture-based moving and tracking. The Kinect API is one of the most innovative consumer technologies to hit the market in a long time and its affordability makes for perfect use in research settings.
If you put the ideas of holographic images together with the notion of tangible media, you get the computer that Tom Cruise uses in Minority Report. The company that is trying to make that vision a reality is called Oblong, and it originated at the Media Lab.
Tangible media is the idea of being able to manipulate a user interface either through gesture or interacting with a physical object connected through the Internet. This can also be done through Kinect, although the department also has a series of infrared cameras that can track movement and intention with more precision. The cameras are used to localize an item (say, a person) in a 3D space.
Tangible media is described as where the input is also the output. Say I have a gesture-based camera watching my movements. If I am using building blocks in physical space, those same building blocks should move in the digital space as well.
Capacitive touch, which is perhaps the biggest breakthrough in the smartphone revolution, also has origins with projects in the media labs. Indirectly, the iPhone and touch-based devices have roots at MIT.
Robotic Opera, 3D Printing & More
It is hard to keep track of everything that is happening at the MIT Media Lab without being an insider. There are teams working on prosthetic limbs that reduce the impact of missing legs and let a person move around normally. There is a storytelling center looking at new ways to present digital media. There is a camera center that is working on how best to utilize the powerful cameras now attached to every person’s hip via cellphone. There are teams working on creating different densities of material coming through a 3D printer that can make the building blocks of structures with concrete. The innovators behind Rock Band came from the MIT Media Lab. These days, the music group is working on robotic operas.
The MIT Media Lab is majority funded by sponsors or “members” that are companies working on specific functions. For instance, DirecTV helps fund some of the interactive television projects that are being worked on. The building is designed to be an open center of collaboration where everybody can see what the others are working on. The idea is to get designers and scientists together to create technology that will have an impact on the world.