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Storytelling on a String

Barbara Barry, a Media Lab PhD candidate, has invented a new way to tell stories: an interactive necklace of computer “beads” that hold wearer-selected images and text. The “StoryBeads” can be traded or strung together to create narratives.

Barry, SM ‘00, developed the beads as her master’s thesis, designing them to be used by teenage girls. The idea originated in her work as a mentor at the Computer Clubhouse Girl’s Day, a weekly after-school project that encourages adolescent girls to use technology for creative expression.

In addition to the regular beads, each necklace comes with a special interface bead and a viewing amulet. By plugging the interface bead into a desktop computer’s serial port, necklace wearers can download images and accompanying text into their beads. Later, they can transmit the images to the amulet to be viewed. To send an image from a bead to the amulet, users press the interface bead the number of times that corresponds to the position of the bead (for instance, press twice to see the image stored on the second bead). Pressing a button on the amulet transfers an image from one necklace to another via infrared light.

If StoryBeads are ever commercially manufactured, Barry says, she will be the first to buy them. “I would love a pair for myself,” she says, but notes that the necklaces could be expensive.

Memory Mechanisms

Researchers at MIT have discovered that two different types of memories are formed in two distinct parts of the brain. Their work appeared in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Assistant neuroscience professor Anthony Wagner and postdoc Lila Davachi, along with Harvard University graduate student Jason Mitchell, studied the hippocampus and perirhinal cortex-both of which play important roles in memory formation. Using functional-MRI imaging, the researchers watched the activity in these areas when study participants thought about sets of words in two distinct ways. The two ways of thinking corresponded to two types of memories: memories of words themselves and memories of words in the context of how they are learned. By watching their subjects’ brain activity as both types of memories were formed, the researchers found that the perirhinal cortex helps build memories of words themselves, whereas the hippocampus builds memories of the context in which words are encountered.

The study may one day lead to increased understanding of memory degeneration, whether from age or illness. “Who we perceive ourselves to be, our sense of identity-it’s all wrapped up in the fact that we’re able to form memories of our personal past experiences,” Wagner says.

Fishy Technology

As you walk past the glass, curious fish follow, then dart away when you make a sudden movement. Stopping to look closer, you see several fish investigating you. This sounds like a scene from the New England Aquarium, but it is actually an encounter with a virtual aquarium-which, if all goes well, should hang in the Infinite Corridor by summer’s end. The so-called iQuarium will display some remarkably realistic-looking fish that have been “bred” from computer code, and sensors mounted on the ceiling will allow the fish to react to the movements of passersby.

The student-run iQuarium project is part of the iCampus initiative, a five-year, $25 million research alliance between MIT and Microsoft. The interactive virtual aquarium uses state-of-the-art hydrodynamics research technology to display the disturbances fish create as they swim through water. Data from Flex 3D, a software program that describes the tiny whirlpools created around live swimming fish, are fed into a modeling program that creates simulations of water disturbances and displays them on the screen.

Apart from introducing the MIT community to fluid dynamics, the project gives ocean engineers a chance to graphically realize their models of fluid flow and enables students to explore fundamental hydrodynamics concepts. “It takes experts months to visualize and understand flow field data,” says program manager Katie Wasserman, a junior in ocean engineering. “Now, for the first time, realistic virtual fish and flow field data have been brought together in a display that will enable even the nonscientist to get a basic visual understanding of fluid dynamics.”

Requiem Revealed

Pulitzer Prize-winning music professor John Harbison had his Requiem, which was 17 years in the making, premiere to a standing ovation at Boston’s Symphony Hall in March. Commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra and hailed as the first major requiem of the 21st century, the piece draws from three sources: the movement Harbison wrote eight years ago for the 13-composer collaboration Requiem of Reconciliation, which honored the victims of World War II; the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001; and the composer’s personal experiences with tragedy.

At a dinner for recipients of the Burchard Scholarship (an award given annually by the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences), Harbison explained that while working on the Requiem, he kept in mind loved ones who had died, in order to “remind myself that only living alertly in our immediate lives gives us any comprehension of war, disaster, [or] destruction on a wider scale.”

Harbison was named an Institute Professor, MIT’s highest faculty honor, in 1995. His major works include four string quartets, three symphonies, and three operas. The Flight into Egypt, a cantata that explores the condition of the poor and homeless, earned Harbison a Pulitzer Prize in 1987. He donated all proceeds from the piece to a homeless shelter.

Speaking to the Burchard group, Harbison insisted that “finding the sublime in daily routine is one of the highest purposes of art.” He has a routine of his own: because his father played Bach on the piano every day, Harbison now listens to Bach each morning.

Education’s Economic Impact

In an unprecedented collaboration, eight Boston research universities, including MIT, have issued a detailed analysis of their economic impact on the Massachusetts region. Their report, titled “Engines of Economic Growth,” was presented at a Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce breakfast in March. More than 250 business and community leaders listened as presidents and chancellors from the universities, including MIT president Charles M. Vest HM and Harvard University president Lawrence Summers ‘75, spoke about the report’s findings.

Boston College, Boston University, Brandeis University, Harvard University, MIT, Northeastern University, Tufts University, and the University of Massachusetts, Boston, collectively provide a $7.4 billion boost to the regional economy. The universities attract international companies building major research operations, play a vital role in their local communities through public-school programs, and provide a steady source of employment for a work force of nearly 50,000.

Vest spoke of entrepreneurship. He pointed out that at these institutions, there is “a tremendous amount of entrepreneurship that did not die with the dot-com bubble bursting.” The report says half of the 50 early-stage, Boston-area startups that attracted the most outside investment in 2002 were connected to one or more of the eight universities.

Ear of the Storm

When a hurricane approaches, the decision to evacuate hinges on the storm’s strength and speed. Satellites provide information about speed, but accurate strength measurements require special planes that fly into the storms. These planes are too expensive for many developing countries, so Nicholas Makris ‘83, PhD ‘91, associate professor of ocean engineering, and meteorology professor Kerry Emanuel ‘76, PhD ‘78, are developing a more practical detection method.

Emanuel and Makris aim to use sonar devices called hydrophones to measure hurricanes’ strength via noise levels. The more agitated water is, the more noise it makes. Changes in noise level cause the hydrophones to produce electrical currents, which would allow scientists to gauge wind force on the surfaces of stormy seas. The hydrophones, which can be deployed from ships or installed underwater, have already been tested in their new role in the Charles River.

“Our system is all built and ready to go,” Makris says. “We’re trying to get it in the water right now in hurricane-infested areas.” Later this year, Makris, Emanuel, and graduate student Joshua Wilson hope to test their system further by installing the hydrophones on oil platforms in the Gulf of Mexico, which is usually swept by hurricanes between June and November. Makris estimates that, long-term, the hydrophone system could cost as little as $10,000 to set up, which would make it financially feasible for developing countries.

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