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The future is now at MIT Media Lab

Road Trip 2010: CNET reporter Daniel Terdiman visited the famed research and development lab and got a first-hand look at some technologies that could reshape our world.

At the MIT Media Lab, innovation and solving age-old problems is a daily exercise. One interesting project in the works is a folding car that is enabled in large part by the fact that its powertrain would be distributed between its four wheels instead placed in the heart of the vehicle. And while the car is still largely a concept, the researchers developing it have already built prototypes of a vehicle with that type of powertrain system. CNET reporter Daniel Terdiman got a chance to see that prototype on a Road Trip 2010 visit to the lab. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

CAMBRIDGE, Mass.--If I learned one thing Thursday, it's that I want a folding car.

You might laugh at that notion, but I'm here to tell you it's not fantasy: the folding car is coming, and if it succeeds, it could change the way urban environments look forever.

That's my take after a visit to the MIT Media Lab here, the 25-year-old hotbed of research and innovation that has produced the underlying technology behind things like Guitar Hero, Lego Mindstorms, E Ink, One Laptop per Child, and much, much more.

Click here for a photo gallery on MIT Media Lab.

This is an unusual academic institution. Though much of its funding comes from its 60 corporate sponsors, those companies are not able to specifically support--or direct--any particular research projects. Instead, the program's students and faculty--23 faculty members run 23 different research groups, with each group comprised of six graduate students--pursue their work, and the corporate sponsors benefit by, among other ways, getting royalty-free licenses to the work products.

I got a chance to visit the lab on Thursday as part of Road Trip 2010, and unfortunately, I only had a few hours to investigate the cutting-edge projects under way there. But even that much time afforded me no shortage of opportunities to see some very exciting technologies and research concepts.

And surely, the CityCar--the folding vehicle--was one of them. Expected to weigh in at less than a 1,000 pounds, it can fit into the tiniest of parking spaces, and could get the equivalent of at least 150 miles per gallon, mainly because it is a battery-electric car.

Instead of being built with a traditional engine and power train, the CityCar would have four in-wheel electric motors, and each wheel has its own suspension, drive motor, and steering. And that means that the car can rotate on its own axis--they call that an O-turn--can park sideways and do straight-ahead lane changes, according to the lab.

And because it doesn't have a central engine, the CityCar can be folded, making it even smaller and allowing it to fit in even smaller parking spaces. Three of the vehicles are thought to be able to fit in a standard parking space.

Clearly, this is not a family car. It holds just two passengers, but then again, it is not intended for heavy-duty driving. It is meant for the most common trips. And it is thought it could be charged at municipal charging stations, and perhaps eventually through solar charging.

This is a concept image of what the folding car--the City Car--could look like in a typical urban environment. William Lark/MIT Media Lab

"Lithium-ion batteries are housed in the floor of the CityCar, which provides a large amount of space, keeps the center of mass low, and facilitates cooling," the CityCar's site says.

My next step was to the Camera Culture group, where faculty adviser Ramesh Raskar talked to me about two very interesting projects.

The first was called Bokode, and Raskar positioned it as a way to solve a problem by adapting society to the fact that there are already 1 billion digital cameras in people's hands, rather than asking people to give up those devices in order to try to work with a whole new technology.

The problem is how to do mobile advertising, or message or information delivery. Today, we are all used to bar codes and are increasingly becoming used to things like QR codes or similar systems, all of which can deliver a small piece of information by being scanned, increasingly by smartphones running simple applications.

But Raskar argued that that is too limiting. Why not make it so that much more data can be transferred through that same smartphone scanning process?

The answer is the Bokode, he said, which can be scanned just the same as any of the other coding systems. But instead of carrying just a small bit of information, it can convey as much as 10,000 bytes, enough to pass on an entire bus schedule or restaurant menu or the like.

I asked him who would implement this, and he said it could be useful for businesses that are expecting the arrival of a Google Street View truck, and anyone interested in putting a Bokode on the side of their shop or business. Ultimately, as noted above, the idea is simply to make it possible to upgrade information delivery without requiring anyone to jettison a device they already have. This, Raskar noted, is an elegant solution that adapts the technology to us, rather than the reverse.

Next, Raskar showed me a system that could have much more meaningful social implications: NETRA, or Near-eye tool for refractive assessment.

It sounds complicated, but it's actually quite simple. Meant to provide large numbers of people around the world--including in the developing world--with quick and easy eye tests, NETRA is little more than a smartphone application that takes advantage of the better than ever resolution of devices like the iPhone 4. Users would clip a special eyepiece to their devices, and run the application--which would give them a quick eye test. According to Raskar, this could be as good or better than what is possible in a typical eye doctor's office and can be done in just seconds and for next to no money. Even the eyepiece could cost just a couple of dollars, he said.

This could be a major breakthrough, Raskar said, because there are 2 billion people on Earth who have refractic error of some kind, and half of billion of them--even some in rural areas of the U.S.--have no access to eye care. With NETRA, he theorizes, that could change, and quickly.

NETRA, or Near-eye tool for refractive assessment, is a system designed to allow for near instantaneous (and highly accurate) self-evaluation of eyesight using a smartphone and a simple snap on device. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

For those who have access to smartphones and the Internet, the idea is that they could run the application--which tasks them with looking through the special eyepiece and lining up two lines; if their eyes are good, the lines will already be aligned--and the, using the report of their vision, order glasses online. In cases of the developing world, it might be more a situation where someone goes from village to village doing tests for people, leaves to get their new glasses, and then returns. But that's still a big step up for many, since they have nothing even that good now, Raskar said.

Helping autistic children
A little later, I met Elliott Hedman and Rob Morris, who spent the next hour talking with me about two different elements of a project aimed at helping occupational therapists work with autistic children.

The concept here is that in many cases, therapists can guess at the moods of the kids they're working with but can never really be sure how something affects them. And that matters, because if a kid is too excited or overwrought, the therapist might not be able to get any constructive work done. Similarly, if the kid is too subdued, the work would be just as hard.

By combining ideas from artificial intelligence, biosensors and assistive technologies, the two have found ways that they think could lead to better understanding of the emotional moods of these children, and in the process, help therapists do their job better.

For one, this involves fitting kids with electrodermal sensors, essentially wristbands, and other sensors that can measure excitement at very discrete levels, and keep a running, real-time measurement. The idea here is that by tracking the moods and correlating them with behavior, therapists can get a better sense of how the therapy they're trying actually affects the children. At the same time, it can also help professionals see the kinds of things that can bring overexcited kids down, or that can get them to feel more engaged if they've been too subdued.

Essentially, it's about taking out the guesswork, said Hedman.

Morris then showed me a system designed to measure people's moods by capturing their expressions on camera and mapping their facial expressions and body language to a database of moods. Sitting in front of a large monitor, I watched my face get mapped, and saw the system interpret my expressions.

Together, these two systems seem primed to really help offer better understanding of people's emotions, especially among those who have a hard time expressing those moods directly.

Human Dynamics
My last stop was with Coco Krumme and Riley Crane, two members of the Media Lab's Human Dynamics group.

They explained several projects aimed at examining the "digital breadcrumbs" left by most people as they navigate the world. At its heart, this work is about "reality mining," and using devices like smart phones to measure just about everything people doing.

They talked about one project in which groups of people were given special badges capable of measuring people's interactions. The badges were able to track meetings between anyone in the group, as well as their tones of voices and other emotional states, essentially providing a map of the social dynamics of the entire group.

One of the goals of that work, they said, is to measure performance in groups and see how certain social interactions work--is it better when everyone is participating in conversations, or better when a few people are dominating the discussions and the social mixing.

Crane, it turns out, was part of the team that won the DARPA Red Balloon Challenge in 2009, a project that offered a $40,000 reward to the first group that could located nine red balloons hidden around the United States. His team won by creating a clever distributed, crowd-sourced, network that built connections throughout the country and offered partial rewards to anyone who referred someone who helped locate a balloon.

For her part, Krumme has been working on a project aimed at determining how people behave economically, at least as it relates to our spending patterns--and what those patterns say about us.

She defines the project on the Media Lab site by asking, "How predictable are people? We are using credit card transaction data to look at how patterns of human behavior change over time and space, and with which macroeconomic features these changes correlate. How does spending/merchant composition evolve as a region gets bigger/richer/more economically diverse? Do network features help to predict economic ones?"

Ultimately, she said, as a society, we're pretty boring. Whether we're rich or poor, we end up making the same decisions again and again. But at an individual level, we're very unpredictable, and Krumme is hoping to help create financial management models that can help people get through the difficulties of debt and overspending.

Fire hose
One thing I've had people say to me again and again throughout Road Trip 2010 is that they understand that they've unloaded a "fire hose" of information on me in a short period of time. Ironically, no one said that to me at MIT Media Lab on Thursday, but there's no doubt that that's what happened. Yet, I would gladly go back again and stand in front of the hose for as much as they have time to aim my way.

For the next two weeks, Geek Gestalt will be on Road Trip 2010. After driving more than 18,000 miles in the Rocky Mountains, the Pacific Northwest, the Southwest and the Southeast over the last four years, I'll be looking for the best in technology, science, military, nature, aviation and more throughout the American Northeast. If you have a suggestion for someplace to visit, drop me a line. In the meantime, you can follow my progress on Twitter @GreeterDan and @RoadTrip and find the project on Facebook. And you can also test your knowledge of the U.S. and try to win a prize in the Road Trip Picture of the Day challenge.