Boston Tech Party: The Wonders of the MIT Media Lab

by Linda Rodriguez McRobbie

Want to know who to thank for Guitar Hero and the Kindle? You'll need to head to Boston, where a new American revolution is taking place.

The Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is the kind of place that makes you think the future might not be so scary after all. Instead of being a wasteland overrun by machines hell-bent on human destruction, the students here are encouraged to build the kind of future they want to see. And that's more likely to mean a world full of Star Trek gadgets and friendly robots that want to make you a cup of fair-trade coffee.

The Media Lab is an elite graduate program at MIT, and since it opened in 1985, it's been changing the way people interact with machines. Innovators here were tinkering with social networking long before Facebook, and they thought up motion-capture filming well before Gollum was creeping around in Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings. Without the Media Lab, Guitar Hero wouldn't exist, and neither would the Kindle. The idea that every child in the world should have a laptop—the One Laptop Per Child initiative—well, that was born in the Media Lab, too. Right now, the Lab is filled with fur-covered robots and jumbles of electronics, all of which have an impressive chance of becoming the next big thing.

In the Beginning"¦

The idea of the Media Lab was conceived in the 1980s by two MIT professors, Jerome Wiesner and Nicholas Negroponte.

After World War II, Wiesner worked at Los Alamos in New Mexico, where he helped the United States military build nuclear weapons. He walked away from the experience committed to the idea that technology needed to be used to build a better future, not a more terrifying one. He went on to become President Kennedy's science advisor, during which time he helped Rachel Carson prove that DDT was damaging to the environment. In 1971, Wiesner became MIT's president. The Lab's other founder, Nicholas Negroponte, studied at MIT, where he was one of the first people to focus on computer-aided architectural design. He joined the faculty in 1967, at just 23 years old, and immediately went to work creating a think-tank to study how people interact with computers.

In 1985, Wiesner and Negroponte joined forces to create the Media Lab, a kind of play space for talented people of all disciplines—arts, sciences, computer technology, engineering, architecture, and urban planning. The hope was to solve the world's needs by bringing together people with unique backgrounds. For its launch, the duo managed to secure more than $45 million in funding. (It was enough money to lure architect I.M. Pei, the guy who built the giant pyramid at the Louvre, to design the Lab's first headquarters.) Next, they concentrated on recruiting misfits, people who didn't seem to belong within the rigid confines of academia; Negroponte called it a "salon des refuses."

One of these misfits was Tod Machover, a Juilliard-trained composer with a deep interest in computers. In 1985, he started a lab within the Media Lab called Hyperinstruments. Machover's goal was to create new technology that could turn music into "as positive and creative a part of people's lives as possible." Within a few years, he'd already seen tangible results. His lab had built a fleet of musical robots and created new interactive instruments for performers as varied as Penn & Teller, Yo-Yo Ma, and Peter Gabriel. They'd also produced groundbreaking software called Hyperscore, which allowed children to create original music without any prior musical training.

Most remarkably, Machover's lab gave rise to Guitar Hero, a series of musical video games that have grossed more than $2 billion worldwide and have led to a whole new genre of rhythm-based games. It all started in the 1990s, when researchers Alex Rigopulos and Eran Egozy were working in Machover's lab and built a computer program that allowed users to improvise pop-music solos with joysticks. After they graduated from the Media Lab, they created Harmonix in 1995, the software company behind Guitar Hero and Rock Band. The games utilize the same basic computer programs they invented under Machover, but instead of improvising, players try to follow music as closely as possible in the context of a game. In addition to making Rigopulos and Egozy rich (MTV Networks bought Harmonix for $175 million in 2006), both Guitar Hero and Rock Band fulfill Machover's promise of making music fun and accessible for everyone.

Money, Money, Money

The road Harmonix took from student experiment to commercial success fulfilled another promise: to make money. From the outset, the Media Lab was structured to generate its own funding. Basically, it was a start-up before anyone had heard of start-ups. Instead of relying on MIT's sizable endowment, the Lab received the majority of its funding from big companies. Today, that's still how it works. Corporate sponsors such as Best Buy, Samsung, Bank of America, and PepsiCo., don't get to dictate how research is conducted at the lab, but in exchange for their donations, they receive intellectual-property rights to any gizmos created there. This has the added bonus of putting pressure on faculty members and students to design and build technology that's relevant to the real world. Several times a year, students are called upon to present their work to their sponsors. And these presentations often lead to projects that go straight from classroom to boardroom.

One of the biggest ideas to come out of this model has been electronic ink, better known as E ink. At the time of its development in the late 1990s, 75 MediaLab sponsor companies backed the E ink project, which was referred to as "the last book." E ink technology is pretty fascinating: A page is embedded with black and white microcapsule spheres, and when an electronic charge is applied to the page, the spheres move to the surface, forming letters. Today, E ink is commonly used in many e-readers, including the Barnes & Noble Nook and the Amazon Kindle. As of 2009, 1.5 million Kindles have been sold worldwide, and the next generation of e-readers—which hope to do for newspapers and magazines what the first generation did for books—is already on its way to market.

Golden Labs

Guitar Hero and E ink are just two of the many incredible inventions to come out the Media Lab. But the Lab does more than just produce cool gadgets; it's also about nurturing creativity and bringing people together to benefit humanity. In 2005, Negroponte left the Lab to launch the One Laptop Per Child initiative, a nonprofit organization devoted to putting laptops in the hands of impoverished children across the world—children who, in most cases, can barely afford books. Small and durable, the XO laptops run on hand-crank power and have special screens that are visible in direct sunlight, for children who go to school outdoors. Thanks to the program, nearly 2 million kids in countries from Haiti to Afghanistan now have computers.

During the past 25 years, the Media Lab has seen its share of imitators. On the West Coast, there's the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology, or Calit2, a research consortium run jointly by UC Berkeley and UC San Diego. Founded in 2000, Calit2 runs along similar rails as the Media Lab. It pursues innovation through interdisciplinary cooperation, always with an eye toward product development. And it, too, has developed a number of headline-grabbing inventions, including the Einstein Robot, a hyper-realistic automaton that can respond to and mimic human emotions.

Calit2 and other research institutions are putting pressure on the Media Lab to stay in the game. In response, the Media Lab strives to come up with what Negroponte calls "pre-competitive ideas," visions that are 10 or 15 years ahead of their time. Under Frank Moss, the Lab's current director, the program has sharpened its focus to deal with major social issues, such as poverty and disease. It's also building new communication tools to help people with autism, and it's creating new social-networking devices to aid in healthcare.

Of course, while the students and faculty inside the Lab are always looking ahead, the Lab's exterior has been stuck in the past. That is, until recently. In 2007, the grad program hired award-winning architect Fumihiko Maki to design its current headquarters—a stunning structure of metal and glass that looks and feels like it comes from a better world. Today, the MIT Media Lab is everything you'd expect from a birthplace for innovation. The building's giant windows make it easy for anyone to look inside and sneak a peek into the future.

Welcome to the Future!

The Media Lab is always coming out with nifty ideas that are going to revolutionize the way the world works. What's it seeing in our future now?

Robot Skin
The Media Lab is currently working with an engineering group in Britain to build "skin" for robots. The new exterior would allow robots to sense when they've been touched and determine the pressure of the contact. The idea is to build machines that can interact with humans on a whole new level.

A Personal Food Factory
This device is something that Star Trek fans have been anticipating ever since Captain Picard said, "Tea, Earl Grey, hot." It's a computerized food processor that will make entire meals by blending together your favorite ingredients and then "printing them out." Developed by the Fluid Interfaces Group at the Media Lab, the device isn't ready yet, but it could be soon.

Better Ankles
Researchers at the Media Lab are currently pioneering "smart" prostheses that mimic the body's natural motion. In 2007, researchers in the biomechatronics lab unveiled the world's first robotic ankle, now being commercialized and brought to amputees the world over. The new robotic ankle employs an electric motor and tendon-like springs, which resemble the body's natural architecture, thus minimizing fatigue and improving balance. And it really works! The biophysicist leading the research, Dr. Hugh Herr, has been a double amputee since the age of 17. He proudly, and successfully, tested the new motorized ankle on himself.

A Sixth Sense
Who says computers need to be tied to a monitor and keyboard? That's so last decade. SixthSense is a small interface that will allow computers to read your hand gestures and arm movements. For example, if you draw the @ symbol into the air, SixthSense will tell the computer to open your email. The device works by projecting digital information into the three-dimensional world and then receiving digital information back. In other words, it turns your room into a giant computer. The coolest part? The prototype only cost $350 to build.

This article originally appeared in mental_floss magazine. If you're in a subscribing mood, here are all the details.

10 Facts About Aspirin

Aspirin may be one of the world's best-known wonder drugs, able to do everything from cure a headache to reduce a fever, but its powers stretch beyond your medicine cabinet.

1. It's not the same as acetaminophen (used in Tylenol), ibuprofen (used in Advil and Motrin), or naproxen (used in Aleve).

2. There’s more than one way to take an aspirin. Americans swallow their tablets whole. The British dissolve theirs in water. And the French prefer theirs as suppositories.

3. The ancient Egyptians took their painkillers in the form of tree bark. Egyptian doctors used to give their patients willow bark to relieve pain because it contains salicin—the raw ingredient in aspirin.

4. Aspirin broke into the European market in 1763, after British clergyman Edward Stone chewed on some willow bark and felt a renewed vigor. He shared the stuff with his parishioners and relieved 50 cases of rheumatic fever in the process. After Stone reported his discovery to the Royal Society of London, the race was on to package the miracle cure.

5. A century later, French chemist Charles Gerhardt published an article on how to synthesize salicin in the lab, creating acetylsalicylic acid. Nobody paid attention.

6. Forty years after that, in 1897, German scientist Felix Hoffman followed Gerhardt’s process and took credit for inventing aspirin. Hoffman worked for Bayer Industries, which introduced the medicine in 1899 as the first mass-marketed drug.

7. In the mid-1940s, aspirin became a huge hit in Argentina thanks to radio jingles sung by future First Lady Eva Perón. Her country became the biggest per-capita consumer of aspirin in the world.

8. The wonder drug doesn’t just cure headaches; it can also revive a dead car battery. Just drop two tablets into the battery, let the salicylic acid combine with the battery’s sulfuric acid, and you’ve got an instant jump! Just make sure you don’t have any salt on your hands. Adding sodium to the aspirin-and-car-battery combo can cause an explosion.

9. So how does aspirin work? No one knew for sure until the 1970s, when British scientist John Vane discovered that aspirin reduces the body’s production of prostaglandins—fatty acids that cause swelling and pain.

10. Here’s another reason to eat your fruits and veggies: When the body gets a healthy dose of the benzoic acid in those foods, it makes its own salicylic acid, or aspirin.

A version of this story appeared in Mental Floss magazine.

Peter Cade, Central Press/Getty Images
How Kiss's Alive! Saved Their Record Label—And Changed the Music Industry
Peter Cade, Central Press/Getty Images
Peter Cade, Central Press/Getty Images

It was late 1974, and Neil Bogart, CEO of Casablanca Records, was falling apart. His wife of nine years had divorced him. Warner Bros., Casablanca’s onetime parent company, had cut the fledgling label loose, saddling Bogart with crippling overhead and advertising costs. The company’s headquarters—a two-story house off the Sunset Strip that Bogart (no relation to Humphrey) decorated to resemble Rick’s Café from the film Casablanca—had devolved into a hedonistic playground awash in cocaine and Quaaludes. A few years earlier, he’d made stars of the Isley Brothers and Curtis Mayfield, whose soundtrack for Super Fly had been an instant hit. Now, at 31, he was watching his career crumble.

But Bogart had a plan. As part of the split with Warner Bros., Casablanca inherited a promising project: a double LP of audio highlights from The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. It seemed like a sure thing. In 1974, The Tonight Show drew 14 million viewers a night. The year before, as the CEO of Buddah Records, Bogart had sold more than a million copies of a similar compilation titled Dick Clark: 20 Years of Rock N’ Roll. Bogart was so confident in The Tonight Show project that he envisioned the album as the first of four highlight records, stretching back decades.

Before SoundScan existed to track album sales, the recording industry conferred “gold” status to any album that shipped more than 500,000 copies. Bogart shipped 750,000 copies of Here’s Johnny: Magic Moments From the Tonight Show. As it turned out, no one wanted to listen to audio clips of a late-night talk show. The album was such a flop that distributors even mailed back their free promotional copies. Industry insiders joked that it had been shipped gold and “returned platinum.” Or as Casablanca cofounder Larry Harris put it, “It hit the floor with a lifeless, echoing thud.”

By the end of 1974, Casablanca was broke. To make payroll, Bogart cashed in his line of credit at a Las Vegas casino. The label seemed doomed. It needed a cheap hit just to survive.

One of the bands on Casablanca’s roster was in similarly rough shape. Kiss, a flamboyant heavy metal outfit from New York City, had released three albums by the spring of 1975. The band had a cult following in the Rust Belt. But the moment Kiss stepped into the studio, they deflated, unable to replicate the raucous energy of their live concerts.

This may have been an impossible task. Since their first gig in 1973, the foursome had performed only in Kabuki-style makeup, black leather costumes, and towering platform shoes. Onstage, Gene Simmons, the Israeli-born bassist with a 7-inch tongue, spat fire and fake blood at the audience. Blasts of smoke and pyrotechnics punctuated hard-driving songs like “Strutter,” “Deuce,” and “Black Diamond.” At the end of each set, drummer Peter Criss rose 10 feet above the stage atop a hydraulic drum riser. This intimidating stagecraft belied Kiss’s sound: more pop than metal, closer to David Bowie than Black Sabbath on the ’70s rock spectrum. Kiss’s stage show was so over the top that Bogart pitched the band as a headline act before the foursome had a legitimate hit. Queen, Genesis, and Aerosmith all canceled bookings with Kiss because no one wanted to play after the band.

But if Kiss was a circus act, Bogart was its P.T. Barnum. At pitch meetings, he’d unleash fireballs from his hand using magician’s flash paper, declaring “Kiss is magic!” Bogart hounded DJs, TV hosts, critics, and music magazines, pushing the Kiss brand. He even convinced Kiss to record a cover of “Kissin’ Time”—a single by ’60s teen idol Bobby Rydell—as a promotional tie-in for a nationwide kissing contest called “The Great Kiss-Off.”

None of it worked. And Kiss was fed up. The band received a meager $15,000 advance for its first three albums—Kiss, Hotter Than Hell, and Dressed to Kill— and despite Bogart’s fiery efforts, it had yet to see royalties. He’d even produced Dressed to Kill himself because he was unable to afford a professional producer.

Then Bogart had an idea. What if Kiss put out a live album? It’d be less expensive than a studio recording and might preserve some of the band’s incendiary live show. At the time, live records weren’t considered a legitimate product; bands released them mainly to fulfill contracts. But Bogart didn’t care. He knew this was his last chance.

Kiss liked the concept. Within days, Bogart had arranged to record a multicity tour, with stops in Detroit; Wildwood, New Jersey; Cleveland; and Wyoming. Since Bogart couldn’t finance the tour himself, Bill Aucoin, Kiss’s long-suffering manager, put $300,000 of his own money into costumes, expenses, and effects. To oversee the recordings, Bogart roped in Eddie Kramer, a star audio engineer who’d produced albums for Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin.

On May 16, 1975, 12,000 people packed into Detroit’s Cobo Hall—the largest venue in a city many considered the capital of rock ’n’ roll. Bogart and Aucoin went all out on production. To fire up the crowd, a cameraman followed the band from the dressing room to the stage, projecting the shot onto a giant screen overhead. During the song “100,000 Years,” flamethrowers wrapped the band in a curtain of fire. And this time Criss’s drum kit rose to twice its usual height.

The concerts were a massive success, yet the recordings were still mediocre. The energy was there, but the band’s musicianship suffered in its frenzied live performance. In the end, sound engineers recorded over much of the material. Nevertheless, certain core elements remain, including Criss’s drum tracks, lead singer Paul Stanley’s stage banter, and the propulsive fury of early singles “Deuce” and “Strutter,” in which the band’s energy soars in response to the sound of thousands of screaming fans. The physical record was an accomplishment of its own. A double album with a gatefold sleeve, it featured handwritten notes from the band, a glossy eight-page booklet, and a centerfold collage of in-concert photos.

Alive! was released on September 10, 1975. Five days later, Aucoin sent Bogart a letter of termination: Kiss was leaving the label. In desperation, Bogart, who’d recently mortgaged his house, cut Aucoin and the band a check for $2 million to retain them. Then everyone sat back and watched the Billboard chart.

The result was unprecedented. Alive! peaked at No. 9 and remained on the charts for the next 110 weeks, becoming the band’s first record to sell more than a million copies. By the end of 1975, major rock bands from Blue Öyster Cult to REO Speedwagon suddenly found themselves opening for Kiss. Today, Alive! has sold more than 9 million copies, making it the biggest selling Kiss album of all time.

Alive! rescued both Kiss and Casablanca from oblivion. The band’s next three albums—Destroyer (1976), Rock and Roll Over (1976), and Love Gun (1977)—were all certified platinum. In 1977, Kiss topped a Gallup poll as the most popular act among American teens. The late ’70s saw a superstorm of Kiss merchandise, including Kiss makeup kits, pinball machines, Marvel comic books, and even a made-for-TV movie called Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park.

But Alive! also changed the music industry. “Shortly after it hit, just about every hard rock band issued live albums,” says Greg Prato, a writer for Rolling Stone and the author of The Eric Carr Story, about Kiss’s short-lived drummer Eric Carr. “Some of those albums were the best live rock recordings of all time: Thin Lizzy’s Live and Dangerous, the Ramones’s It’s Alive, Queen’s Live Killers, Led Zeppelin’s The Song Remains the Same, Cheap Trick, At Budokan.”

What makes Alive! a masterpiece, though, is how it captures the essence of Kiss—a hard rock band that was meant to be seen, or at least heard, live. “The emphasis on a live album is the experience itself, specifically how close the record translates and interprets the experience of actually attending the show,” says author and Kiss fan Chuck Klosterman. “[Alive!] jumps out of the speakers. It feels like a bootleg of the highest quality.”

Ultimately, Bogart’s excessive spending habits, along with his prodigious cocaine use at Casablanca HQ, led to his ouster from the label in 1980. By that point, he’d become the reigning king of disco, breaking such acts as the Village People and Donna Summer. He died of cancer two years later at age 39, having just created Boardwalk Records and signed the then-unknown rock goddess Joan Jett. In the decades after his death, the iconic metal band he’d helped bring to the top continues to tour, even making an appearance on American Idol in 2009. For 40 years, Kiss has been sending drum kits aloft (albeit with a different drummer), performing in fully painted faces, setting stages on fire, all in an effort to recapture an impossible sound. With Alive!, Bogart had created a chimera. It was a record that could never exist in real life: part raucous energy, part polished studio overdubs, a “live” masterpiece better than the best live act in rock history.

This piece originally ran in Mental Floss magazine.


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