From bionics to 'magic,' MIT Media Lab celebrates 30 years of innovation (with video)

The legendary lab been involved in everything from prosthetics to Google Glass and Guitar Hero

The MIT Media Lab was launched in 1985 to bring together experts from different academic fields, founded on the idea that mixing and matching researchers and students, and encouraging people to draw on their unique experiences and perspectives, would yield previously unimaginable technological breakthroughs.

Andrew Lippman, senior research scientist and associate director of the MIT Media Lab, calls it a "bubbling brew of differentiation."

Out of that bubbling brew has emerged the predecessor to Google Glass, the technology behind e-readers, the video game Guitar Hero and a bionic prosthetic leg.

"Magic occurs when you mix technology with the artistry of different disciplines -- and that had never been done before," said Lippman. "The time was right to do it."

Asked whether the Media Lab is looking to make better technologists, Lippman offered an emphatic "No!"

Nor is the lab simply trying to get people to collaborate.

"Think of [collaboration] like making a movie," he explained. "Sound people and video people come together and make a movie, and then the movie is done and they all go home. They're not changed by it. We didn't want to just bring artists and tech together. It's to understand two very different modes of solving a problem. It's about mixing different styles of thought."

Working together, sharing ideas and learning to think differently should change students and give them a lifetime ability to study problems and see opportunities differently. That's the goal of the MIT Media Lab, which this week celebrates three decades of breaking down academic walls and bringing together different forms of study.

Professors, students and alumni will gather Oct. 30 to celebrate the lab's 30-year anniversary with a day-long symposium titled "Mind, Magic and Mischief" at MIT's Kresge Auditorium.

The event is attracting big names. Kofi Annan, former secretary general of the United Nations and a co-recipient of the 2001 Nobel Peace Prize, will speak, as will Megan Smith, who is the CTO of the United States and a former vice president at GoogleX. Smith earned bachelor's and master's degrees at MIT and completed her master's thesis work at the MIT Media Lab.

The symposium will be webcast, with online access available on the morning of the event.

30 years of 'radical new ideas'

While the symposium is designed largely to look into the future of emerging technology, the Media Lab also is looking back at the people, ideas and work that have come out of it.

The people showcased include Marvin Minsky and Seymour Papert -- both are considered pioneers in artificial intelligence (A.I.) and Papert is a founding faculty member of the Media Lab; Hugh Herr, who heads the biomechatronics research group at the MIT Media Lab and is world renowned for creating bionic limbs that emulate the function of natural limbs; and Cynthia Breazeal, an associate professor at the Lab and founder and chief scientist of Jibo Inc., who is well known for her work in A.I. and robotics.

Breazeal's work includes developing Kismet, a robot that can recognize and simulate emotions. Jin Joo Lee, a graduate researcher at the lab, said she wanted to study there so she could follow in Breazeal's footsteps.

Jin Joo Lee and her robot Sharon Gaudin

Jin Joo Lee and her robot.

"The MIT Media Lab is very open to radical new ideas," said Lee, who is working on robots that can teach children storytelling skills and a second language. "[Breazeal] was a key pioneer in human-robot interaction. That's the reason I came to the Media Lab."

She also pointed out that Breazeal studied with Rodney Brooks, a robotics entrepreneur and founder, chairman and CTO of Rethink Robotics, when he was a professor at MIT.

Lee now benefits from that academic lineage.

"Rod Brooks was Cynthia's adviser," said Lee. "In that way, Rod is my academic grandfather. It's the passing down of ideas and inspiration to the students."

Palash Nandy, a research assistant at the Media Lab, said the history of work at the lab drew him in. Actually, it's the only place he applied to when he was preparing to go to graduate school.

Palash Nandy and his robot Sharon Gaudin

Palash Nandy and his robot.

"When the rest of the world is looking one way, MIT Media Lab is saying, 'Where else can we look?'" said Nandy, who is studying human empathy toward robots. "I wouldn't have been able to do this without the past work done in this lab. I'd still be tinkering in my garage."

One of the reasons for the Media Lab's success is the mix of people, according to Lippman.

"We look for students who are really broad thinkers, really diverse thinkers," he said. "You get a lot of renegades from electrical engineering who like to play guitar or climb mountains or deep-sea dive. And they're good at all of it.... You don't want people who all come from the same place and read the same books. You have people who are programmers, people who are horseback riders. You have people who are designers. You have people who are nuts. You have this bubbling brew of differentiation, which brings many perspectives to bear on a problem.

"Technology is too important to be left to pure technologists," he added. "We have this gang of people all working under one roof and all bumping into each other every single minute of every day. That's uncommon. Most schools have walls between their departments, and the mathematicians don't talk to the physicists and they don't talk to the musicians and they don't talk to the artists. And sometimes that's even ingrained administratively into how the school works."

Cesar Hidalgo, assistant professor of media arts and sciences at the lab, is drawing on that mix of student backgrounds to push his own research. A physicist by training, Hidalgo is working to create technology for visualizing big data.

His team includes students studying computer science, design and physics.

"In most other programs, students are going to be from singular academic backgrounds," Hidalgo said. "In most universities, physics students are studying to be physicists. Here they might be exploring different questions and different aspects of the world. The Media Lab allows me to assemble a more complex team, unlike a team where they have a singular set of skills."

That mix of skills and interests is what Hidalgo thinks will make his work successful.

To help people visualize large data sets, they can't focus solely on technology. The visualization needs to be aesthetically appealing -- and all the pieces need to be in the right places to tell the data's story.

"If you focus only on the science, only on the engineering, then the project is incomplete," Hidalgo explained. "By having a team with all these different skills, you have a product that is much more useful."

Media Lab teams have done a lot of interesting work like that over the years.

Alex "Sandy" Pentland, a Media Lab professor of media arts and sciences, has pursued pioneering research on wearables and built what became the predecessor to Google Glass. When Pentland's team was working on that headset project, its members were often seen walking around MIT wearing helmets with antennas on them.

They were jokingly referred to as the cyborgs of the Media Lab.

The lab also was the birthplace of E-Ink Corp., which makes the electronic paper display technology used in smartphones and e-readers like Amazon's Kindle.

And music and gaming fans can thank the MIT Media Lab for the Guitar Hero series.

Guitar Hero games, which use a guitar-shaped controller to make users feel like they're playing in a rock band, were created by Eran Egozy, who has degrees in electrical engineering and computer science, and Alex Rigopulos, who is trained in music and theater arts.

The two, who met while studying at the Media Lab, went on to form Harmonix Music Systems, the company behind Guitar Hero and Rock Band.

"They were trying to accomplish not just a cool video game, which they did, but they were trying to encourage people to get involved in the creation of music," said Lippman. "There are not that many places in the world where you can experiment with electronics and music. You can do that here. Remember that you have crazy people here good at programming things, people good at music, people good at electronics. You have this bubbling brew where ideas can bubble out."

The next 30 years

Where does the Media Lab go from here?

According to Lippman, there's much more work going on in chemistry and biology today than there was in the earlier days of the lab.

One team, for instance, is studying optogenetics, which involves the use of light to control cells in living tissue. If their research is successful, it may one day be possible to relieve pain by using light to de-stimulate the cells causing the pain.

Another team is working on prosthetic legs that have electronic ankles instead of springs at the point where the foot meets the leg. The new ankles are designed to learn how the user walks and support those specific motions.

"I think the thing that is the most exciting about the Media Laboratory is that we sometimes build companies, but more often we build big ideas," said Lippman. "We strive to do things here that have a little bit of magic. You don't think they can be done. They're unique. If you can do them elsewhere, then you probably ought to do so.... We're working in areas that would be difficult to find a happy home in a traditional academic department."

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