An Afternoon at the Media Lab: Where The Lines Between Physical and Digital Are Permeable

IcanHasHOloYesterday I took my son to the MIT Media Lab, hallowed ground for me, as reading Stewart Brand’s 1988 “The Media Lab” propelled me toward helping to create Wired magazine, where I edited the founding Director of the Lab, Nicholas Negroponte, for five years (he wrote the back column of the magazine).

For this visit, I met up with David Kong, one of the lab’s alumni wizards, who took us on a whirlwind tour of the place (David’s work on microfluidics is, I believe, some of the most important stuff being done today, but more on that in another post). I spent a day there last summer with Director Joi Ito, and it’s amazing to see how much progress can be made in a year.

Instead of describing everything, I think I’ll let video do the work – one of the Lab’s core values is to always be demo’ing, and my son and I saw half a dozen incredible projects, all demo’d by the people who created them.

First up was the Opera of the Future group, which evolved out of the HyperInstruments lab. Akito Van Troyer gave us a tour of the components used in the recently staged “Death and the Powers” piece, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer in music.  Here’s some video of that performance:

Akito also turned us onto a very cool beat machine he built as a side project, a hack based on actuators and tempo that turns anything into a percussion instrument. Here’s a video of that I found on YouTube:

After that we went to see Xiao Xiao, who works in the Lab’s Tangible Media group (this is the part of the Lab most directly connected to the themes of the upcoming book). She showed us the MirrorFugue, which is just amazing, in particular, to sit down at the keyboard as it’s playing. It’s magical, which is pretty much the goal of the entire Lab. Here’s a video of that:

MirrorFugue III from Xiao Xiao on Vimeo.

You can probably sense a theme by now – all this work is about blurring the lines between physical and digital, atoms and bits. An extraordinary world is soon to be settled by pioneers in this space, and we’re all of us fascinated by it – it’s why we love the idea (if not necessarily the look) of Google Glass, or 3D printing (I met the co-founder of FormLabs while at the Lab), or cool gadgets like the NFC ring.

The Media Lab is a place where folks are actively creating the future. Over and over, I heard this refrain: “I took some off the shelf parts, hacked them together, and wrote some code.” Simple, right?

One example: Makey Makey, which went viral earlier this year with the “banana piano.” The idea is bigger than turning fruit into keyboards, however. It’s about making nearly anything physical a portal into the digital world, and bringing the digital right back into the physical. I met with Eric Rosenbaum, one of the creators, in his lab, which is called “Lifelong Kindergarten” (yeah, I know.) Here’s a short video about Makey Makey:

As the border between physical and digital gets more permeable, a new kind of literacy emerges. And that literacy is built on a foundation of code – whether it’s the codes of letters and words, or the code of bits and algorithms. Rosenbaum showed me Scratch, a graphical programming language used by hundreds of thousands of kids across the world. I’m determined to learn how to code, at least enough to be dangerous (I took classes in Pascal about 30 years ago…). Maybe Scratch is where I’ll start.

Next up I met Dan Novy, from the Lab’s Object-Based Media Group. He showed us a number of great projects he’s working on, including holo-presence (with a sense of humor, see photo at top) and new forms of augmented experience. Check out this video about redefining the home entertainment experience:

Dan also took us into a small room with a voice aware projection device in the center. Using his voice, Dan told a children’s story, and the four walls of the room lit up with visual images related to the storybook. It’s early days, but we discussed what might happen when this device is miniaturized and connected to consumer “narrative catchers” like Facebook, Path, Google Glass, and the like. Also next to the projector was an object – what it is, it doesn’t matter, but for this example it was a bottle of perfume – and when you pick up that object, “memories” related to that object are projected onto the walls. So imagine what might happen when you pick up that ornament from Christmas three years ago and hang it on the tree, and images from that Christmas past flash onto your home’s walls….

The last demo we saw was perhaps the most well known of Dan’s group’s work. In essence, they turned a basketball net into a data collection device, so as to measure the force of a slam dunk. The technology is amazing, watch Dan talk about it here:

The Media Lab is truly an extraordinary place, and seeing it with my son made it even more magical. I’ve toured it a few times now, but I’ll never tire of coming back. The work happening there is helping to define the world all our kids will be living in soon.

Author: John Battelle

A founder of NewCo (current CEO), sovrn (Chair), Federated Media, Web 2 Summit, The Industry Standard, Wired. Author, investor, board member (Acxiom, Sovrn, NewCo), bike rider, yoga practitioner.

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