MIT Media Lab makes your coffee table a computer

The MIT Media Lab celebrates 25 years by opening up its lab to show work on "fluid interfaces" that merge the digital and physical worlds.

Martin LaMonica Former Staff writer, CNET News
Martin LaMonica is a senior writer covering green tech and cutting-edge technologies. He joined CNET in 2002 to cover enterprise IT and Web development and was previously executive editor of IT publication InfoWorld.
Martin LaMonica
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CAMBRIDGE, Mass.--Computing is increasingly embedded everywhere, yet the interfaces people use are still largely tied to the original personal computer graphical user interface.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology held an open house to celebrate its 25th anniversary here today, where researchers in the Fluid Interfaces group showed some clues on how people will interact with computers in the not-to-so distant future.

The MIT Media Lab has yielded several computing-related technologies now in daily use by millions of people, including the e-ink interface used on e-books such as the Amazon Kindle, the Guitar Hero video game, and Lego Mindstorms programmable robot toys. Speakers here today said the Media Lab has yielded interesting work because people are able to pursue pure research in a culture that values play and hands-on experimentation.

MIT Media Lab celebrates 25 years (photos)

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One of the technologies shown publicly for the first time today is LuminAR, a system where people use gestures to bring computing onto everyday surfaces, such as tabletops. The work is being done with Intel and Microvision.

"It's a new form factor for consumer electronics that doesn't yet exist," said research assistant Natal Linder. "It's a new grammar for user interaction."

The LuminAR is a combination of a projector, computer, and sensor packed into an assembly that can screw into a light socket. A person can use gestures to bring a computer keyboard onto a tabletop or start a Skype videoconferencing session, for example.

MIT Media Lab researchers are also exploring other applications, such as augmenting a physical magazine with information projected onto a surface. Other projects are targeted at retail settings where a person could scan a grocery store item and get nutritional information or display electronics store items on a counter. People can touch icons on the table to get more information on the differences between mobile phones, for example.

Inside the lamp assembly is an Atom-based computer, allowing for sufficient computation to control the robot, which makes the lamp move. It's mobile and can be screwed into a light socket so the projector-robot can be moved to different places in someone's house, or attached to a ceiling to project computer interfaces. "It's a boring robot but it can do a lot of stuff," Linder said.

The biggest challenge is making the device familiar enough for people to figure out how to use it quickly, said Linder.

Combing computing and creativity
The work of Linder's lab-mates group shows how both traditional and embedded computers can be used with improved interfaces.

The MemTable is project that seeks to improve collaboration by integrating a computer with a table. There are two projectors and mirrors, along with a desktop computer, placed under a table with a surface that allows people to control the computer.

People can pull up documents or maps and share them by flicking images to other people seated around the table. The discussion can be recorded and documents can be tagged so that people can look at the information later in "asynchronous" mode, explained researcher Seth Hunter.

Another researcher, Pranav Mistry, is working on a cheap system to replace the ubiquitous computer mouse.

Touch-screen computers offer an alternative to the decades-old mouse, but using gestures has limitations, Mistry said. For example, a person gets tired touching a vertical screen or even doing gestures in the air, he said.

He is developing a laser that could be embedded into a laptop computer and that reads the gestures of a person's hand. So instead of interacting through a physical mouse, a person touches a tabletop to control a PC. The system would be cheap--under $10--and the laser could be embedded in many places, including the keyboard, Mistry explained.

During a morning panel, MIT Media Lab director Frank Moss, who joined five years ago, said one of the breakthrough ideas of the Media Lab was to combine computing with creativity. In 1985, computers were used by businesspeople to make spreadsheets or for computation of complex tasks.

The work by researchers at the Media Lab, which often focuses on art and computers, has shown that computing in various forms can be used by anyone, he said. "We want to build things that make people smarter," Moss said. "Creativity can be unleashed by anybody on the planet.