What’s New at the Media Lab?

author: Frank Moss, MIT Media Lab, School of Architecture + Planning, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT
author: Adam Boulanger, MIT Media Lab, School of Architecture + Planning, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT
author: Ryan Chin, MIT Media Lab, School of Architecture + Planning, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT
author: Hartmut Geyer, Locomotion Laboratory, Friedrich Schiller University of Jena
author: Henry Jenkins, Comparative Media Studies, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT
published: March 20, 2014,   recorded: March 2007,   views: 1930
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Under new leadership, MIT’s Media Lab has shifted gears significantly. This forum gives viewers a sense of the Lab’s current priorities, via an overview by the director and three student presentations.

Frank Moss initially laughed at the headhunter aiming to recruit him to the Media Lab, but reconsidered after reflecting on his kids’ pointed comments: “You’ve sold software to fat, white guys in IT departments all your life. When are you going to give something back to society?”

In conversation with Henry Jenkins, Moss describes his vision of “inventing a better future, in which technology can impact people at a deeper level, beginning with people who are disabled, disadvantaged, or disenfranchised.” Targeting these groups will lead to inventions that impact society as a whole, believes Moss.

Moss hopes Lab researchers will develop designs that enable more intimate interactions between humans and technology; that open up new ways for creativity and learning to change our lives; and that allow for a rethinking and simplification of “common elements in our environment.”

He introduces three young exemplars of the Media Lab’s new focus. Adam Boulanger uses “facilitative technologies to break the mold,” by handing music composition software to severely disabled patients in a Tewksbury, Massachusetts hospital. Hyperscore, says Boulanger, has enabled “new modes of interaction, new social interactions and empowerment” among patients with psychiatric disorders, spina bifida, and Alzheimer’s disease. He’s working on broadening this software to provide useful interventions in autism, and to detect cognitive decline.

Ryan Chin’s research focuses on ways to complement the increasing density of the world’s cities with appropriate car design. City Car is a two-passenger electric vehicle that folds up (to four feet) so it can be conveniently stacked in small spaces in city centers and neighborhoods, and at commuter stations. Think shopping cart, says Chin. The concept challenges fundamental ideas of car ownership and function, since it’s “more a computer on wheels,” says Chin and is intended for shared, community use. But 504 of these vehicles fit on a city block that normally can accommodate only 82 parked cars, and when stationary, these cars can return some of their energy back to the grid.

Biomechanical devices represent perhaps the ultimate in human-machine interaction. Hartmut Geyer works on ankle and knee prostheses, applying an understanding of the human gait -- the nerve signals and muscle actions required to move in different ways -- to create more responsive devices for amputees. Signals from the residual limb of the amputee tell the prosthesis how to respond during a particular activity like walking upstairs. Eventually, says Geyer, electrodes may be implanted into nerve fibers so that the brain can directly control the prosthesis, or the prosthesis can send signals to sensory fibers “so maybe the amputee wearing it can feel what he’s stepping on—maybe sand, maybe concrete.”

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