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Media Lab Advances Use Creativity to Help People

Guest Column by Thad E. Starner

Scott C. Deskin '96 may have missed the point of the Media Laboratory's Smart Clothing project ["Media Lab's Smart Clothing' Is a Dumb Idea," May 10]. To a large extent, it seems that his impression of the Media Laboratory is based on the material presented in MAS100 [Introduction to Media Arts and Sciences]. This introductory level class is only a small porthole through which to view the work at the lab, and correspondingly the more involved research issues and details are skipped in the overview. Instead, many of the more light-hearted and fun aspects of the field are emphasized to grab students' imaginations. In other words, lighten up, try crazy things, and see where your ideas take you.

In the case of smart clothes, the ideas have become fertile. One of the applications that developed from the research was helping the blind to see. Deskin may not realize that the research is already helping Ruth Marshall, a poet and political activist, in her daily life.

Marshall became legally blind last year and was told that she would never read again. She now reads and writes independently due to the Smart Clothes project. While the Veteran's Administration has funded such research at Johns Hopkins University for many years, Marshall's system was made from 15-year-old spare parts. If this "low vision reader" was marketed today, it would be sold for $500, or about what Medicare would cover for the 200,000 Americans who are afflicted with similar conditions. This is but one example of the technology resulting from the project. Unfortunately, there is not space here to talk about the augmented memory software for students, augmented and mediated reality applications, or the magical devices that have resulted from the program.

Smart Clothes is enabling technology. The heads-up displays, information sharing, and network access are being designed to augment and enhance human communication, not replace or confound it. That is one of the basic tenets of the research, and the research teams are not only trained in computer science and physics but also in cognitive science.

In fact, a new research program by Associate Professor of Media Arts and Sciences Rosalind Picard concentrates precisely on the affective side of communication. Emotions are exceedingly valuable in everyday work and recreation. It can be clinically argued that without emotions, none of us would be able to reach decisions. Unlike that horrible invention, the telephone, which has alienated distant family members from coast to coast, the Smart Clothes project is actively learning from the affective side of human nature and taking it into account as the technology increasingly improves.

Deskin's best point may be that this technology will split the "haves and have-nots." This is undoubtedly true, just as access to electricity, the automobile, or the Internet splits society. However, the right way to approach this problem is to find a commercially viable way to make everyone into a "have" if they so desire. How is this possible? In the case of electricity, the United States government mandated that utilities provide service to rural areas. Henry Ford used ingenuity to bring the cost of automobiles down to where many Americans could afford one.

Maybe the American school system could give each child in America a wearable computer. Imagine each child having every book used in his education downloaded to his own sneaker computer where he can make annotations on the text for later searching. These books are not simply plain text and images but sounds and movies as well. The books are automatically updated through the network connection to reflect the most up to date version and links to the newest material on the World-Wide Web. Best of all, such a system might be cheaper than the expensive printing, purchasing, archiving, and updating process that currently occurs with the books in the educational system. Considering how fluent these children would become with such tools, don't you think an argument could be made for a $500 computer for each school child in America?

While such research, by its very nature, generates many differing opinions, the Smart Clothes project has much deeper motivations and implications than can be covered in an introductory lecture or column. For more insight, I encourage people to attend one of the numerous lectures the professors and graduate students give on these topics and ask questions in person. Explore your imagination and see where it takes you.