Laser mice, fire-breathing shoes, and other visions of the future

2014-02-01 13.58.58So I was at the final presentations for the MIT Media Lab – WE School design innovation workshop. Why? Firstly, I was scouting for design talent. Secondly, it’s basically a hackathon on steroids, and everyone knows how I feel about hackathons.

Out of thousands of applications, some 300 students/young professionals were selected for the 7-day workshop, and organized into groups working on projects in one of ten tracks. These tracks included banking, grassroots innovation, the future of imaging, etc. Their brief was to visit an institution (bank, school, etc) and then spend the seven days – under the guidance of MIT Media Lab students from the US – creating a working prototype of a futuristic product that solved a problem in their category.

The projects ranged from the fantastical – a group projected images onto fog, another created lightbulbs that jumped when they sensed a person passing under them – to the practical – an e-learning game for girls who drop out of school, a 360-degree camera embedded in a bracelet.

I didn’t see all of these projects, but here’s a video of one of the coolest groups I did meet. They’d created a project that could sense the thickness and size of any surface placed underneath it. The projector would scale the projection to the size of the screen (in the video below, the demonstrator is unfolding a piece of paper. As he unfolds it, the image expands).

They’d also created depth sensation, so that as someone moved the paper up, the image zoomed in or out. Especially fascinated was the way the sensor responded to the picture of a boy. As the paper was moved closer to the sensor, the projector began to cycle through a slide show of the boy aging.

Who wrote the code, I asked. Someone pointed to a skinny kid standing next to his computer. “I’m fourteen,” he said. Geez. (He was a precocious exception. Most of the participants were 18-26 years old). He walked me through the 10,000-line program that controlled the sensors. He had written several sets of code to control the device.

Here’s a video of the team that projected images onto fog. They were part of a track called “Magical interfaces.” Which might explain why, the moment I saw this presentation, I thought of Galadriel’s enormous bowl of magical water from Lord of the Rings. (And now you know why I hang around at hackathons)

Here’s one of a team that connected a laser pointer to a computer mouse. (Ignore my chirpy commentary, please).

Alas, I have no video of this, but one of the teams also designed fire-breathing shoes. (Except that the fire was a specially constructed and contained chemical reaction – or so it looked like.)

Of course, the really fascinating stuff is happening at MIT’s Media Lab, for which this event seems to serve partly as a recruiting exercise. Several professors – including the spectacular Pattie Maes (remotely) – presented the work that their research groups are looking at. Maes spoke about the smarter devices work her group is doing, as well as a dual-sensor system embedded in a ring (the ring reads aloud to blind people.) More of their work on their site.

Ramesh Raskar spoke briefly at the beginning about his group.

The response environments group head, Joseph Paradiso, presented a whole lot of cool stuff happening with sensors. He talked about circuit stickers and this absolutely, insanely cute social story-gathering robot that one of his team mates built. (Seriously, this robot is the cutest thing since Nemo.) I especially liked the idea of the story-gathering robot because of its obvious interfaces with journalistic practice. The idea that we could one day use robots to tell stories – or even do portions of field reporting – is the sort of thing that probably strikes people as sacrilegious now but could one day be a valuable part of SOP.

*The image up top comes from an art project one group created as part of their fabrication prez. The pieces – connected by elastic thread – are supposed to resemble origami.

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