Critics scoffed at Comdex Fall’s keynote address flight of fancy that carried IBM Corp chief executive Lou Gerstner into a world of shoe computers, but work at the world famous Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab shows that the leap is grounded in possibility. The Media Lab is doing research in things that think: smart […]
Critics scoffed at Comdex Fall’s keynote address flight of fancy that carried IBM Corp chief executive Lou Gerstner into a world of shoe computers, but work at the world famous Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab shows that the leap is grounded in possibility. The Media Lab is doing research in things that think: smart shoes that pass data to glasses, and coffee-makers that know when a cup is empty, among other things. It has won a list of about 40 heavyweight sponsors that are betting good money that the Lab’s work isn’t just a fancy, including AT&T Corp, Walt Disney Co, Federal Express Corp, Hewlett-Packard Co, Microsoft Corp, Nike Inc and Ing C Olivetti & Co SpA, Philips Electronics NV, Siemens Nixdorf Informationssysteme AG, Visa International Inc and Yamaha Corp. Assistant professor Neil Gershenfeld and a graduate student demonstrated a system fitted to specially adapted Nike shoes with computer chips in them, which enabled them to touch hands and exchange data that appeared simultaneously on a screen or could be stored for later retrieval. Exchanging business card information by shaking hands was identified as one simple example of use. The system the Media Lab has created passes the signal through the body using sensor and electrical field and flow techniques developed from its research into how hand and body movements create music notes when playing instruments. Taking away the instrument and leaving the motions, fields and sensors, the Lab created a ‘spirit chair’ used by comedians Penn and Teller which interprets body motions, enabling drum rhythms and tunes to be played apparently in thin air. Rather than creating new versions of existing devices such as Personal Digital Assistants, laptops, pagers and cellular phones which Gershenfeld believes are only just good enough to be worth their intrusion, – and in any case will soon reach the physical limits of size and density (or the point at which it becomes too expensive to make them smaller) – the Lab’s work is aimed at embedding information technology into everyday low-cost objects, weaving those objects into a web to make them useful at solving hard problems. Its principles are to match the performance of people, make new technology look physically as good as old, make it cheap, battery-less, wireless, without need for user identification, deliver information where and when it is wanted and use lots of simple components in the process. The Lab has also developed three-dimensional mouse sensors that can be mounted in a table and respond to the user’s hand movements rather than to an actual mouse device. Development of what is called the Fishboard – in part because certain species of fish living in muddy river bottoms use similar sensors to navigate – is being led by David Allport at Hewlett-Packard Co’s Bristol, UK labs. He has turned the technology into a way to navigate three- dimensional applications, since a traditional two-dimensional mouse falls short. The Media Lab’s sponsor companies get the rights to whatever ideas they generate in the consortium.