CAMBRIDGE, Mass.--The MIT Media Lab, which turns 25 in 2010, has long been known as a hotbed of innovation. It has 23 research groups ranging from Camera Culture to Speech Mobility to Smart Cities to Affective Computing and more. Each group is led by a faculty member and has six graduate students.
Founded in 1985 by Nicholas Negroponte, the lab has produced or contributed to many famous technologies, including Guitar Hero and Lego Mindstorms.
One current project that could have a big impact is the folding car. The idea is to leverage the growing trend for easily rentable short-term cars in cities, like City Car Share or Zip Car. But instead of being about normal vehicles, this project is about an entirely new kind of car, one that is either electric or solar-charged, and can fold up into a very small amount of space.
The vehicle would be able to do that because instead of having a traditional drivetrain, it would have a distributed motor system, with the power coming from motors embedded in all four wheels.
This is a prototype of a vehicle with that powertrain, though this model doesn't fold up.
This is an artist's rendering of what the folding car, known as the City Car, could look like if it was deployed in actual cities. The car is being developed by members of MIT Media Lab's Smart Cities group.
A look at one of the wheels of a prototype vehicle with the powertrain embedded in its wheels. This system not only takes major mechanical parts out of the heart of the vehicle, but also allows each wheel complete freedom of movement.
This in an electric bicycle project underway at MIT Media Lab. Instead of having the powertrain be a major element of the bike's frame, as with most such systems, here, the powertrain is part of the back wheel.
What this means is that the system is frame-agnostic, allowing the user to swap the rear wheel out on just about any bicycle. That means users would be able to start with an existing bike rather than having to buy a whole new one.
Here's a system that shows a lot of promise for the third world, or even very rural areas in the developed world. Called NETRA--Near-eye tool for refractive assessment--it fits over a smartphone and runs a quick test on the strength of the user's eyes.
The idea is that with today's sophisticated mobile devices, users should be able to get an accurate test of their eyes and then use that information to order glasses online. In the third world, someone could go village to village testing people's eyes, go to a place where glasses are available, and then bring them back to the villages. As with many Media Lab innovations, the idea is to slash the cost and complexity of many things that impact people's lives.
This is part of the BiDi system, which is meant to tackle the age-old problem of how to produce true 3D images from standard cameras, and, as well, how to display those images.
This is a set-up that demonstrates how the system works. According to MIT Media Lab, "The BiDi Screen is an example of a new type of I/O device that possesses the ability to both capture images and display them. This thin, bidirectional screen extends the latest trend in LCD devices, which has seen the incorporation of photo-diodes into every display pixel. Using a novel optical masking technique developed at the Media Lab, the BiDi Screen can capture lightfield-like quantities, unlocking a wide array of applications from 3D gesture interaction with CE devices, to seamless video communication."
In the Affective Computing group at MIT Media Lab, researchers are looking at systems that can help therapists measure the moods of patients with afflictions like autism. The idea is to best help therapists by giving them a way to see how their patients respond to any number of stimuli or activities. And while that is already possible to some extent simply by observing, that is a very inexact science, the researchers argue. By adding sensitive sensors to the mix, it is possible to get a much more accurate sense of how the patient--often a child--is feeling at any given moment.
This is a graph showing the results of sensors testing one Media Lab student's reactions to a concert. It is possible to see the excitement level rising at the end of each song, as well as a mood dip partway through the concert when his least favorite song was played.