SDMers Tour Media Lab

Students get a taste of the fun, funky, and functional

By Monica Nakamine
April 25, 2001

From functional to frivolous to downright fascinating, stuff created in the Media Lab is anything but boring. And some of the new SDMers can attest to that.

"The Media Lab is like MIT in a nutshell," said J.C. Duh, a new student to the SDM program. "Creative, vibrant, imaginative, and a lot of fun."

The SDM class entering in 2001 recently visited MIT’s renowned Media Laboratory to tour the facility and get a glimpse of some of the projects that students are currently working on. Ryan Chin, research specialist at the Media Lab, was one of the tour guides that led part of the group through the various departments.

Many of the projects, while useful, oftentimes have a quirky and humorous nature about them. Although past innovations have been commercially sold, Chin explained that the Media Lab folks are not focused on the marketability of their creations.

"We’re not interested in the end product — we’re interested in the concept," said Chin. "In the Media Lab, concepts are solutions looking for questions. That is the freedom that we are allowed which lets us think of possibilities that a marketing board of company X could not even consider."

Chin showed a video demonstration of the Scream Body, created by Kelly Dobson, a Media Lab graduate student. Essentially, the Scream Body is a hard-shell device that is strapped on to the front of the body. Whenever a stressful moment arises and the need to release that tension is overwhelming, the Scream Body wearer can scream into it without any sound heard. As an added benefit, the Scream Body allows its wearer to release the sound of the scream at a more appropriate time and place.

"Concepts like Scream Body grow out of the need to create and make," said Chin. "This project grew out of a class called ‘How to Make Almost Anything.’ During this course, the Scream Body inventor knew nothing about electronics, fabrication, programming, etc., however, by the end of the class, she was able to produce this remarkable, and some may say weird, project.

"Again," Chin emphasized, "[this is] something that would have never been thought of in a marketing room, however, we can see this has possibilities in other areas, like in a car or your house."

SDM students also got a chance to watch Hypersoap, an innovation sponsored by retailer JC Penney to be used as a different marketing approach to sell their products. A five-minute soap opera is filmed in which the costumes and props in the scenes are all JC Penney products. Touch the woman’s blazer on the screen and the price and description appears. Everything from wall hangings to furniture to jewelry can be selected by the touch of a finger.

Professor Hiroshi Ishii came up with the concept for Music Bottles – an innovation he first thought of for his elderly mother as an alternative to using a computer. Freestanding bottles with glass corks can be placed on a lighted platform. Each bottle contains a different sound – music, the weather report, news, etc. Lift the cork and sound emanates.

Other projects were more serious in nature. The use of holography is one area that researchers at the Media Lab are looking into to expand the way holography is currently used. Steve Smith in the Spatial Imaging department is researching ways to print holograms from CAD data. He is also developing a holographic laser printer.

"We want to take the holography out of holography and make it a print process," said Smith.

On the MIT campus, and possibly within the Boston community, the Media Lab is a highly renowned institution that fosters creativity. But, as the use of technology, not to mention the creative applications for it, become more and more in demand, the Media Lab’s reputation is growing with it.

"Many believe that the Media Lab will be the world’s leader in technological innovation for the [21st] century," said Chin. "We have expanded to Dublin and there are thoughts about a Media Lab in China and India."

And as the Media Lab expands geographically, it is also reaching out to various disciplines that have a tendency to create.

"We hold a special place at MIT because that interactions with schools and individuals outside the lab are encouraged," said Chin. "Students from Architecture, Electrical Engineering, Computer Science, AeroAstro, Urban Planning, etc. have a presence at the Lab. So there is a sense of collaboration."

"Before the tour, I could only guess at the richness of the MIT environment," said Bill Phillips, Ford/MIT SDM Fellow. "After viewing just a few of the areas inside the Media Lab, I am better able to see applications for the near-term future for both myself and my company. I also came up with several ideas for thesis topics and classes that I would like to take."