Week of January 3, 2000
  Editor's Choice Web Pick
   of the Week

MIT's Media Center:
'Some Really Wild, Far-Out Stuff'

"Wow, that is some really wild, far-out stuff there." Seven years after Johnny Carson's retirement, many TV viewers can still hear the venerable onetime "Tonight Show" host registering unabashed wonder (and, egad, even . . . actually listening!) as one of his guests took off on some flight of fancy.

But while the Great Carsoni may, alas, be long gone from the air waves, you can still find some really wild, far-out stuff in cyberspace at The Massachusetts Institute of Technology's (MIT) Media Center Web site (www.media.mit.edu). And an appreciable part of the gee-whiz stuff from the MIT Media Center relates to the emerging brave new world of corporate real estate. The site, in fact, notes its "growing focus on how bits meet atoms: how electronic information overlaps with the everyday physical world" - which is exactly where a lot of the workplace is headed.

Mind you, you have to be a bit of a psychic voyager for this site to do much for you. In addition, there's not much here in the way of information that you can immediately put into practice. This is a site about ideas -- most of them very, very far out there.

And even those who chose to take the leap onto this site won't immediately hit the gee-whiz zone. Indeed, with its set of color bars and only seven rather ordinarily named click-off categories, the site's home page is rather pedestrian.

In addition, this site has some stunningly major glitches (more about that anon).

Site Reflects Steelcase Exec's Insights
On Technology-Workplace Intersection

A bit of background: The MIT Media Lab was formed in 1980 by MIT prof Nicholas Negroponte and former MIT President Jerome Wiesner, which came as an outgrowth of the work of MIT's Architecture Machine Group. Since then, both the Media Lab (housed in a building designed by I.M. Pei) and Negroponte have become bell cows in the world of cyber-smarts.

What's that got to do with real estate? A lot, judging from a speech that Steelcase Vice President of Corporate Strategy and Research and Development Jim Keane gave at last November's Tennessee World Congress of the International Development Research Council (IDRC), the world's preeminent association of corporate real estate executives.

Keane, for example, using a phrase much like the Media Lab quote above, discussed the considerable workplace impact of "the convergence of atoms and bits" and the growing importance of "ubiquitous technology" in the workplace.

That intersection of the workplace and technology is where this site comes into play.

'Smart Rooms' That Interpret Users Actions

Such information, though, isn't easy to come by. After much hunting and pecking launched from the site's surprisingly ordinary-looking home page, we finally hit what seems to be the richest lode of data related to real estate. It's under the "New and Noteworthy" category, most of it within a subcategory titled "Things to Do."

There, you'll find an intriguing section on the Media Labs work on "Smart Rooms" -- just the kind of office environment into which Keane and others say we're moving.

As the site describes them, the smart rooms that the lab is working on "act like invisible butlers. They have cameras, microphones and other sensors, and use these inputs to try to interpret what people are doing in order to help them. We have already built smart rooms that can recognize who is in the room and can interpret their hand gestures, and smart car interiors that know when drivers are trying to turn, stop, pass, etc., without being told." (Wow, that is some really wild, far-out stuff there.)

Emerging Technologies for Virtual Teaming

The smart rooms portion of the site also describes and demonstrates (although all too often with considerable technical problems) a number of technologies under development that could be a significant upgrade for the virtual work of remote teams that's already taking place in corporate facilities scattered around the world.

For example, there's "Digital Circus," which, as the site describes it, "[uses] advanced computer vision techniques [to] allow multiple participants, as in a magic mirror, to see their full body video images composited in 3D space." (Granted, that, and much else about this site, will strike some as preposterous. But not so long ago, so, too, would the idea of something called the World Wide Web.)

This section of the site also profiles the Media Lab's work on "Smart Desks" and "Smart Clothes."

Name Tags That Think

Other areas of this site look into diverse aspects of the ubiquitous computing that will increasingly permeate the workplace.

For example, one site area reviews the Media Lab's work on "computationally augmented name tags." Such tags, the site explains, "is capable of displaying different information depending on who is viewing it. When two participants at an event face each other, their name tags change to reflect a simple measure of how much they have in common." (Imagine what that would do for networking at industry conferences.)

Here, the site again recalls Keane's IDRC speech.

At the Tennessee World Congress, Keane described a potential technological tool that would be activated simply by two executives shaking hands. That, in turn, would activate the technology in the shoes of each person, with each electronically receiving the other's business card, which could then be downloaded from the shoe when the executives returned to their respective offices.

And that's just that kind of ubiquitous technology that will increasingly enable corporate space users, Keane added.

"There's a limit as to how much you can carry around," Keane said. "With an office with predictable technology, . . . having ubiquitous technology working all the time . . . this is where place matters."

For those who love challenging visuals, this site also contains several dazzling sections devoted to M.C. Escher, the self-taught Dutch print-maker who's something of a deity in scientific circles. (If you survived the 1960s, you may be familiar, if not with the artist's name, with many of his rather trippy images.)

The site also offers direct links to a large number of research papers related to the subjects in each section. Be forewarned, however, that you'll need an astronomically high technophile quotient to get into them.

Some Stunningly Major Glitches

This site also contains some major technological disappointments. Many of them are particularly stunning, seeing as how all this comes from one of the bastions of bleeding-edge technology.

For example, some of our clicks yielded interminable waits for loading. Our guess here is that for this site to run at maximum capacity, users would need the mega-juice of . . . well, something like an MIT mainframe.

And while the site has a master search capability that works well, that capability is seldom seen. In fact, the only time we actually saw the site search capability during our test drive was on the home page. That means that disoriented users will have to return to the home page each time that they find it necessary to perform a search.

In addition, this cyber-address has no site map -- a major shortcoming for a site bearing this large an information load.

Finally, an appreciable number of the site's links either don't work or send you that always deflating the 404 error message (damnably disappointing that we couldn't access "Baback's Face Recognition Home Page"!).

Perhaps, to be charitable, these snafus are the result of work overloads for the many MIT Media Lab grad students whose work appears on this site. Or perhaps some of those sleep-deprived souls have graduated.

Whatever the reason, be forewarned that this site is not only way out on the fringe; some of the fringe also doesn't work.

Nonetheless, that's often the hit-and-miss nature of the shape of things to come. And even with its all too numerous shortcomings, this site still offers the occasional tantalizing glimpse into the future - much like MIT Media Lab Director Negroponte's recent projection for a 21st century invention: "I would most like to see," said Negroponte, "the ability to transmit physical things electronically and as bits."

Now, wow, that is some really wild, far-out stuff there.



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