Welcome to the high-tech playroom for scientists

Jon Marcus steps inside Massachusetts Institute of Technology's new $90m Media Lab

June 10, 2010

There is a ping-pong table in the third-floor atrium of the gleaming new addition to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's famous Media Lab.

But, like much of the odd mix of objects in this building, which opened in March, there is more to the table than one might suppose, as evidenced by the tangle of wires poking out.

Images from a projector are programmed to hit the surface of the table when the ball does, making a rippling pattern of simulated fish that follows the motion of the game, an extension of work on viral communication sponsored largely by British Telecom.

But it is also "a really good ping-pong table, and everybody's getting really good at it", joked Andrew Lippman, a senior research scientist in the lab.

The seven-storey, $90 million (£62 million) building is the newest realisation of the lab's aim to invent technology that fosters human creativity, designed to encourage innovation and research, and erase barriers between disciplines. It is the physical embodiment of an approach its creators hope will inspire both academics and business.

Founded in 1980 by MIT's Nicholas Negroponte, the Media Lab fuses engineering and design with art and science. More than 60 corporate sponsors pay most of the $30 million annual operating costs in exchange for royalty-free licensing rights.

The lab has developed everything from computerised prosthetics to the hit computer game Guitar Hero and the screen display used in the Amazon Kindle ebook reader. In total, it has spun off more than 91 companies. If it sounds like a playroom for scientists, it looks a little like one, too.

A LEGO-sponsored lab, for instance, studies how technology can encourage creativity in children and is filled with toys. Another lab contains half-assembled foldable electric cars and a plastic couch with an Xbox controller and a Rock Band game guitar.

But the ideas that come out of the building are cutting-edge.

From the location of the ping-pong table in the central atrium, which begins on the third storey, five of the building's eight two-level labs are in view through floor-to-ceiling glass walls. The idea is for all of the researchers to be able to see each other, and their work, no matter how different their projects may be.

Though they have personal workspaces, everyone is, in effect, in the same room.

"Vertical connections are traditionally the most difficult, Dr Lippman said.

But, because of the interlocking nature of the building, he explained, its inhabitants are drawn to look diagonally down and up into the other labs and offices.

"Instead of spreading people out, we've stacked them up," Dr Lippman said. "It's almost easier to go up and down than it is to go across."

But not even the Media Lab was immune from the economic downturn, which cost it $40 million in pledges towards the new building.

As a result, one floor was dropped from the original plans, and the project was delayed, allowing more time for Japanese architect Fumihiko Maki to work on the design.

The idea for the unusual layout began with the original Media Lab, built in 1985.

That building had a soaring, windowless central cube, which was gradually divided into smaller and smaller rooms as space got tighter. Although many complained it felt dark and cramped, researchers liked the idea of working together in a cube, with space to spread out and build the full-sized prototypes that their work often required.

Meanwhile, advances in computing made it possible to create spaces that were larger, brighter and more open. New high-resolution monitors were easier to see, and wi-fi eliminated the need for raised floors and knots of cables. Dr Lippman said all this made it easier to bring together people with different talents and abilities.

"It's not about a bunch of people sitting in their cubicles being productive," he said.

"It's about people interacting and being productive. And it's this open collaboration that allows that to be done."

When the building was delayed by funding problems, sponsors talked of making the creative interaction virtual instead of physical.

The Media Lab, after all, developed countless advances in virtual communication.

But that was not considered for long, Dr Lippman said. "There's a chemistry to working together physically, a chemistry to real places," he explained.

Still, he said, since it opened there has been one evident area for improvement: the square, two-level, glass-walled rooms can become too noisy.

"We have not figured out how to work with sound in this kind of an environment. And sometimes you need a little bit of isolation," he said.

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