That the Media Lab continues to be other than your typical academic department becomes quickly apparent in a tour of the building, which itself has the feel of a very large, colorful, high-tech toy. Mannequins, musical instruments, rubber chickens and rivers of wires are strewn throughout the glass-walled, mutedly lit workspaces. In addition to these inanimate obstacles, one also has to squeeze by an apparently never-ending international stream of journalists, camera crews, sponsor reps and visiting academics-not to mention students sprawled on the floor soldering or huddled around a computer screen in an act of communal debugging.
Although the energy is evident, the nature of the domain into which it is being poured has become increasingly unclear. Ask a dozen different professors what business the Media Lab is in, and you get a dozen different answers. “It’s about ‘me, means and meaning,’” pronounces Gershenfeld, who says he’s referring to the study of people, of embedding technology in everyday objects and of the content associated with these efforts. Walter Bender, who runs two large publishing-related research groups, insists that the lab studies “learning through expression.” Still others suggest the endeavor explores ways to weave technology more seamlessly into people’s lives.
This lack of a clear theme results in an almost scattershot feel to the research that takes place inside-as if the place isn’t so much inventing the future as making a run at interesting slivers of it. Consider, for example, the colored, stoppered bottles that “contain” music. These come from Hiroshi Ishii’s “tangible media” group, which explores how information can be transmitted and controlled by tactile means. The bottles are typical of many projects in that, at first glance, they come off as engaging and trivial, but after a little explanation the ideas behind them seem plausibly significant. “Current technology impoverishes the human senses,” explains Ishii. “If you have to manipulate objects with your hands, then visual information might not be the best form of feedback.”
Rosalind Picard’s affective computing group, meanwhile, strives to get computer-controlled devices to recognize tip-offs to a user’s feelings; a wireless voodoo doll that a desktop computer user is encouraged to hurl against the wall, for example, can keep track of which computer annoyances preceded the launching so that they can be identified and fixed. Lippman’s “Digital Life” group has looked at real-time variable supermarket pricing, so that the price of a container of milk could drop as it approaches its shelf date and specials could be tailored to a shopper’s preferences. Tod Machover’s performing arts contingent produces instruments that allow people with no musical training to create rich sounds. And the lab recently snatched up young Stanford physicist Scott Manalis to work on ways of integrating semiconductors and biological materials, perhaps resulting in chips that can be implanted in the body to monitor health.
It’s not easy to come up with a conceptual umbrella that covers this far-ranging activity. When asked how Manalis’ work fits into the lab’s research theme, Lippman ponders a long moment, then shrugs, “I don’t care.” Says Pentland, who works on wearable computers, among other things: “Maybe there isn’t a tight definition of what we do here. But there isn’t a tight definition of physics, either.” Pattie Maes, an expert in intelligent software agents, suggests that the lack of any clear theme is in fact the lab’s theme. “Most labs are getting better at a narrower and narrower domain of expertise,” she says. “We try to be different.”
The question of theme might not matter if it weren’t for the radical upheaval that the lab is about to undergo as it doubles in size over the next two years and expands into an attached new building, an orgy of clear glass and metal rods scheduled for occupancy in 2003. “Our biggest problem is being fresh again,” explains Picard. “With a PC and the Internet, the average 16-year-old can be as innovative as we are.” She and others agree that the enterprise will require more than a bigger play space to fend off diminished relevance in an era in which significant technological change occurs almost monthly, and more and more people and institutions are treading on its turf. It will also need a different model for managing itself, since Negroponte’s family-style approach to making big decisions has already fallen victim to sheer mass. “Five years ago you could hold a meeting that included everybody,” says Machover. “Now I don’t even know everyone in the building. It’s too late to go back.”