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Media Lab to Get $2.65 Mil

By Eva Moy
News Editor

Hewlett Packard announced Monday that it will donate $2.65 million in computer equipment and funds to support research at the Media Laboratory over the next three years.

"The project aims to improve the ways in which humans interact with computers by programming the machines to be able to recognize more than just text and numbers," according to the HP press release.

The donation will support two research groups that are investigating information not only as content, but as representing physical properties.

These research groups include Associate Professor Tod Machover, who works with computer recognition of audio signals; Assistant Professor Rosalind Picard, who concentrates on video recognition of patterns and textures; and Assistant Professor Neil A. Gershenfeld, who is conducting research relating the physics of sensors and the interfaces between computers and their environment.

Equipment being donated in the first year includes 11 HP Apollo 9000 Series 700 workstations, as well as laboratory test and measurement instrumentation.

The grant continues HP's more than 20-year tradition of supporting undergraduate and graduate education and research programs at MIT. HP provided the first workstation to the Media Laboratory in 1985.

Joel Birnbaum, HP vice president of research and development and director of HP Laboratories, said, "The External Research Program exists to allow HP researchers to collaborate with educational researchers at the country's top universities. This partnership between HP and MIT is an excellent example of a valuable public/private relationship that will benefit not just HP and MIT, but potentially the rest of the world."

These projects funded by HP address nontraditional, "nonverbal expression from human beings," Machover said.

Traditionally, devices have been limited by physical characteristics, such as overheating. Now, "the devices computers use to interact with the environment are cruder than [what is] inside," Gershenfeld said.

Gershenfeld, who heads the physics and media group at the Media Laboratory, is interested in the boundary between physics and the human interfaces. Specifically, his research will try to answer, "How do computers describe physical systems?" One example is a three-dimensional mouse which senses the user's activity, instead of the user directly controlling the mouse, Gershenfeld said.

Recently, he and Machover collaborated in using computers to model and enhance the sound generated by internationally renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma. Sensors measured factors such as finger and bow position, along with Ma's individual style.

Machover, who is also a composer, works with "hyperinstruments that involve connecting professional virtuoso musicians to very smart computers that expand the possibilities of what a traditional instrument can do."

"Instead of having wood and strings model the dynamics," the computer now does this, while giving the performer more flexibility in the sounds he can produce, Gershenfeld said.

This work will lead to the expansion of these tools for nonprofessional musicians and a more general entertainment environment, Machover said. HP's new donation of series 735 Unix workstations "are proving to be extremely useful for this project," as they can accommodate a much higher resolution of input data.

Another related project expands past one instrument and models an entire orchestra. This can be done by building sensor-driven machines to replace each instrument, or by monitoring and processing the signal of the orchestra as a whole.

Machover is also working on the design of a large-scale interactive opera -- The Brain Opera -- for the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. The general public will walk through the opera and provide personal input. The final opera is then based on an interpolation of the input, all done by computer.

As part of the second research group, Picard is "interested in teaching computers to understand what's inside pictures and to represent pictures smarter." This is the video equivalent of Machover's work in audio recognition.

Picard's research tries to "find ways to represent [images] so that the computers can recognize [them]," she said. One application would be to search through digitized photographs for a particular item, similar to a keyword search in a word processing package.

HP has donated top of the line workstations, printers, scanners, and complete support for several research assistants, Picard said.