What's Cool

Cool Think Tank: Media Lab

The MIT Media Lab encourages demonstrations -- Users can try gadgets such as a sensor instrument or the Helpful Online Music Reommender

At the MIT Media Lab, the word you're most likely to hear is demo, as in demonstration. Grad students and professors alike keep busy preparing demos for panels, conferences, and a stream of visitors — representatives of the lab's 95 corporate sponsors as well as the curious and well connected. Far from being your typical ivory tower, the lab feels more like a petting zoo full of extroverted geniuses.

Lab founder-director Nicholas Negroponte, 51, author of the best-selling Being Digital, knows that showing off research in progress is unusual. ''If somebody's interested in a quiet career in research,'' he says, ''that's respectable. It just doesn't happen to be what we do here.''

While the lab lays claim to the very idea of multimedia, it's also recently cooked up some inventions that have caught attention outside the pocket-protector set. Penn & Teller have been using a magical piece of MIT gadgetry, the sensor instrument, in their act for the past eight months. Developed by Neil Gershenfeld and Tod Machover, it effectively turns the player's body into a radio transmitter. Receivers placed near the player translate mere gestures into computer-generated music. Even The Artist Formerly Known as Prince has pricked up his ears. After seeing a video of a P & T performance, he invited an MIT scientist to London, for — you guessed it — a demo. [Prince] is said to be deciding how to use it, although summoning music with the flick of a wrist sounds like a natural for a pop aristocrat.

Addressing her research to music fans rather than performers, associate professor Pattie Maes has developed a web page called the Helpful Online Music Recommendation service. HOMR is a sort of musical Zagat's Guide that tries to ''automate the word-of-mouth process,'' says Maes. Comparing your musical likes with lists from thousands of users, the website makes ''personalized'' recommendations. But it may need work: A reporter sent HOMR a message saying he liked Counting Crows and R.E.M. and got back about 20 group names ranging from Suzanne Vega to Ice T's metal band Body Count.

On the visual front, a push is under way to create interactive documentaries. Hollywood's idea of an interactive movie is to have you kick some bad guy's ass in the Johnny Mnemonic CD-ROM, but MIT professor and filmmaker Glorianna Davenport has higher aspirations for the concept. Her project allows a user to ''grow news'' from raw footage, creating an organic whole.

Although Negroponte's column in Wired magazine often sounds suspiciously like an attempt to read the future, he's hesitant to forecast what else his brave new digital world holds. ''The best way to predict the future,'' he says, ''is to invent it.''

Originally posted Jun 30, 1995 Published in issue #281-282 Jun 30, 1995 Order article reprints