The Future of Media, MIT-Style

Last week, I visited the MIT Media Laboratory in Cambridge, MA. Though Interpublic and McCann have been financial supporters of the lab throughout the years, I’ve never had the opportunity to visit and tour the facilities. With some clients funding research, I was given able to accompany a group of visitors to the lab for a one-day immersion session.

All I can say is, that’s some very cool stuff.

Though it’s impossible to grasp, in an eight-hour visit, all the work being conducted at the lab, we did get to sample many different research areas. Some of that research is direct applicable to interactive marketers.

Our guide was Dr. John Maeda, associate professor of design and computation and director of the Physical Language Workshop at the Media Lab. Maeda is spearheading research that embraces the concept of “simplicity.” As reported by The New York Times (May 20, 2004), “Despite the lip service paid to ‘ease of use,’ ‘plug and play,’ and ‘one-click shopping,’ simplicity is an endangered quality in the digital world… and it is time to break free from technology’s intimidating complexity.” Think Google: simple, quick, intuitive.

Maeda took us first to the Physical Language Workshop, where researchers are working on “tools for creating digital content in a networked environment, and the means by which the content can be leveraged.” Their primary areas of focus are “general digital media service architectures, global e-commerce, distance education, and visual information display systems.” We previewed a number of projects, ranging from “simple” applets to make sharing digital images easier, to more complex systems that would make organizing, searching, and sharing all digital information (video, audio, data, etc.) quicker, easier, and more intuitive. I knew I was looking at the next generation of search and digital asset management tools.

Next was the Interactive Experience Group, where we were greeted by Dr. Pattie Maes, an associate professor of Media Arts and Sciences. The goal of the Interactive Experience Group is to “radically rethink the human-machine interactive experience… creating systems that are more responsive to people’s needs and actions, and that become true ‘accessories’ for expanding our minds.” Within this group, much of the personalization intelligence (e.g., the engine that powers Amazon’s recommendation functions) was conceptualized and created. In fact, the technology for creating personalized Web experiences was completed at MIT in the early ’90s, though it didn’t become commercially widespread for 10 years. It’s now commonplace across the Web.

Another project of particular interest was the interaction of RFID tags between a cellular device and a wearable personal accessory, such as a wristwatch or bracelet. The wristwatch is embedded with an RFID reader. When someone picks up an object with an RFID tag in the physical world, such as a book, the wristwatch reads the tag and communicates via Bluetooth with the cell phone. The cell phone display then gives a wealth of information about the book: reviews, summary, similar books, one-click ordering, and so on. The system’s possibilities are truly limitless.

The Sociable Media Group “investigates issues concerning society and identity in the networked world.” This area is red hot, with the proliferation of communities such as Friendster, orkut, Ryze, and Meetup, to name a few. Some of the specific projects we saw dealt with the visualization of “conversations” in the digital sphere (social networks, online newsgroups, message boards, email boxes, etc.). Looking back at our interactions with others and viewing them as constellations or connected grids (or any other visual metaphor) has tremendous implications for both the commercial and intelligence communities. I was astonished to see a five-year inbox converted into a graphical representation of “conversations” and the conclusions that can be drawn by looking at the data in that way.

It’s nearly impossible to do justice to the research being conducted at the MIT Media Lab in a forum such as this. I strongly encourage you to spend time on the lab Web site and browse around some of the research being conducted. All the people we met were warm, inviting, and open to discussion. I’m sure they’d welcome email from someone “in the trenches” so they can marry their laboratory experience and academic rigor with real-world applicability.

It’s not often you can peek at the future. Last week, I did — and it was awesome!

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