Lift the stopper from one of the three antique-style colored glass bottles and hear a jazz ensemble riff spill out, as if the music had been freed, genie-style. Across the room, touch any of a dozen doughnut-sized plastic bubbles to see a ripple of light spread through the crowd like a rumor. Downstairs, stick your personal mug underneath the coffee machine spigot and hear your favorite station lock in on the attached radio.
Are we having fun yet? If not, there’s plenty more to amuse here at the MIT Media Lab, including festive holograms, dancing microrobots and computerized jean jackets. Even better, all of these gizmos demonstrate unique approaches to technology that, the lab’s faculty assert, will eventually be widely embedded in the world around us.
No wonder the Media Lab has long stood out as the high-tech research darling of the public; it’s just so damned, well, mediagenic. More important, it’s also the fair-haired child of industry, which sometimes literally lines up to witness the alleged future aborning and then hurls money at the lab-enough funds to allow the construction of a second building nearly twice the size of its current headquarters on the MIT campus, as well as a daughter facility in Ireland.
But while outwardly the lab seems to be sailing along as smoothly as ever in its 15th official year of existence, in fact it now faces a series of daunting challenges that could, by the faculty’s own reckoning, lead either to its attaining a vastly greater level of influence or to the enterprise’s dissolution. Among these challenges are a rapid expansion that threatens the lab’s renegade, collaborative culture; a management vacuum left by the shrinking role of founding director Nicholas Negroponte; the lack of a clear direction for its research; and a funding model that looks increasingly anemic and restrictive in an age in which almost anyone with a bright Internet-related idea can collect venture capital millions. “We’re obsolete,” says lab professor Neil Gershenfeld. “We seriously talked about shutting down. The feeling was we should either grow or shrink drastically.”
The choice, made after months of debate among Media Lab faculty and administrators and just now unfolding, has been to embark on a risky strategy for growth-not only by expanding the lab, but by seeking new relationships with industry that could make the enterprise look as much like a management consulting and VC firm as a university research facility. “We’ve changed before, but this is different,” says associate director Andrew Lippman. “In the past it was about new directions and details. Now we’re talking about a change in vision.”