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A ride on MIT Media Lab's digital bandwagon

Digital technologies are reaching deeper into the physical world, opening up new ways for people to interact with their surroundings, say researchers at MIT's Media Lab.

A robot for children recovering from medical treatment uses a smartphone behind its eyes to track how a child interacts with the robot.
Martin LaMonica/CNET

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- MIT's famed Media Lab is like a playground for really smart techies and artists.

The Lab hosted its annual Inside Out conference this week where speakers from a dizzying number of projects talked about the future of technology and design.

Unpacking all the work there would take months, but even a few quick tours give a hint at some of the trends in research which could spill over into mainstream consumer electronics.

A recurring theme is that more everyday objects, whether they are cars or buildings, are becoming digital and that shift opens up new ways of interacting with the physical world. Here are some highlights from inside the lab.

New man-machine interfaces. Researchers are exploring ways to interact not just with computers but other digitized objects, which could be a building's lights or objects on a table.

The Augmented Product Counter project, for example, allows a person to control a computer by tapping on a table surface. Above the table is a device that screws into a light socket to detect the person's motions and display images on the table surface.

A retail store could use the augmented-reality display to show the prices of products on sale next to the objects. When a person picks up a camera, the computer could display more information, such as reviews and comparisons to other products.

Another input device is WristQue, a wristband with a few basic sensors designed to control building temperature and lighting of smart buildings. The wristband can communicate with the building thermostat to automatically set temperature according to a person's preferences. People will also be able to point a light and dim it by rotating the arm one way.

A project called Sparsh enhances the touch interface by letting a person transfer information, such as a photo or a phone number, from a smart phone to a PC just by touching the screens of both devices. Although it seems like the media is stored in the person's body, the system uses the cloud to transfer the data between two devices.

Building on the shoulders of gadgets. Researchers at a place like the Media Lab have powerful tools to play with which just weren't available a few years ago.

Common throughout the lab are Microsoft Kinect game consoles, which provide three-dimensional vision for a fraction of the cost compared to just a few years ago. These low-cost sensors open up new possibilities for gestural interfaces.

The Recompose project, for example, lets a person manipulate "an actuated surface" of small squares by moving hands above them. Another project called (T)ether also relies on overhead depth cameras to allow two people to collaborate on the design of three-dimensional objects on tablet computers.

Smartphones and tablets also turn everyday objects into powerful computers or cameras. In the personal robotics group, researchers designing robots for children are using smartphones as the "eyes" for toy animal-like robots. Using a custom application, the forward camera of smartphones can track and react to children's movements. Another toy robot platform called DragonBots uses the camera and microphone to interact with children. Using the Internet connection of an Android smartphone allows it to go online to improve its interactions by learning from other people and robots.

In another demonstration, people used their smartphones to scan a retail display of cereal boxes to get more information about the products.

Digital tech at home and on the road. The Changing Places group at the Media Lab is exploring a number of ways technologies can improve transportation and buildings.

Perhaps the most well-known project is the City Car, a drive-by-wire, two-seat electric car with robotic wheels that can be folded to take up less space in crowded cities.

The group is also looking at ways information technology can improve city congestion and encourage people to use alternate forms of transportation to cars.

The Mobility-on-Demand project is building a system for managing the distribution of shared vehicles, such as CityCars and bicycles. Ensuring that shared vehicles are available in multiple locations makes it far more likely that consumers will use them and combine shared vehicles with public transportation, according to the researchers.

Even our homes can be smarter. The CityHome project is developing a robotic wall that can effectively give people more living space. A wall setting could transform a bedroom, for instance, into a home office or living room. Central to the project is software that engages people in the design of their personalized space.

Many of these and other experiments may never become commercial products, but if nothing else, they show digital technologies are spreading far beyond what we now call computers.