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Column Underrates Media Lab's Technological Goals

Column by Rich Fletcher
Staff Reporter

The recent column by Scott Deskin ["Media Lab's Smart Clothing Is a Dumb Idea, May 10] presented several issues and misconceptions which deserve a response.

First, the Media Lab is not in the clothing fashion business any more than Dilbert is in making social commentaries about our personal array of wireless electronics. I was taken aback by Deskin's serious interpretation of Neil Gershenfeld's tongue-in-cheek article which appeared in the New York Times. His comment about MIT students' fashion sense - or lack thereof - is a separate issue which deserves to be debated in its own right.

Second, Gershenfeld's research has nothing to do with video and the only connection with the Smart Clothing project is to provide the electromagnetic sensors and flat display technology which could be incorporated into shoes or clothing if someone so desired. Steve Mann G, wearable computing, and vision modeling belong to a different part of the Media Lab.

Third, Deskin confuses experiment with commercial use. Many of the devices we build are experiments or surrogate tests for new technology. In the context of vision, some of the visual experiments at the Media Lab are just extensions of the knowledge we gain through experiment; they will be incorporated into future commercial products.

Fourth, Deskin's notion of what is practical and what is dumb is questionable. Real images overlaid with computer graphics have been used successfully in Air Force fighter planes for many years and as a commercial product. Experimentally, the place where I used to work once fired live ducks at aircraft canopies; and the branch where I worked last summer built a flight simulator that can be controlled directly from brain signals. I agree that many people might consider such experiments dumb or offensive, but they have a purpose. And certainly the Media Lab is not the only place on the MIT campus where "dumb" ideas are conceived and given a chance to teach us something.

Fifth, Deskin's concern about "the partitioning of society" is valid, but is not an issue unique to the Media Lab. In fact, one of the Media Lab's fundamental raisons d'tre is to bridge the technology gap between high-tech research and development and non-technical people with real-world needs. I want to make high performance technology that artists or even my grandmother can use without having to brush up on UNIX. And in my visits to South America and Southeast Asia I was pleased to see that cellular telephone networks now extend into regions where telephone wires were never possible and satellite dishes now populate the rooftops amidst tall mountains which once isolated the people who live under them.

The Media Lab is an unusual place. Unlike most of MIT, we are almost entirely not funded by the military or the government. The "masterminds" that Deskin refers to are faculty, students, and sponsors who come from a variety of backgrounds and professional cultures to promote each other's needs and technology. We explore purely commercial or artistic applications, which can even be solely for entertainment alone. We take on projects that sometimes fall through the cracks because they are either too risky for commercial research and development or too interdisciplinary for most academic labs to pursue. Not everybody likes working here.

The arguments Deskin presents seem exceedingly prejudiced and lacking in facts. The gee-whiz lectures given in the freshman-level MAS100 survey class perhaps neglected to mention important applications of Gershenfeld's research, such as a wireless airbag baby seat sensor being used by Ford Motor Co. to prevent accidental deaths caused by airbags, or an electronic means of tagging medical drugs and equipment in order to help prevent deaths caused by human error in the hospitals. People associated with the Media Lab are not so naive and technically ignorant as Deskin seems to imply. A large fraction of Media Lab grad students as well as faculty have worked in industry for a number of years before coming to MIT and are well aware of the practical issues involved in developing commercially viable technology.

So to twist the quote Deskin cited: Given the enthusiasm of the people funding and working on the current crude version of the Media Lab's sci-fi vision of the future, there must be something much deeper than novelty attracting them. Maybe it is to have fun, or maybe it's the desire to contribute to something that will make a real difference in everyday lives, or maybe both. You decide, but please check your facts first.