Times, March 29, 2003
Struggling to Regain Technological Buzz After Bubble's Burst
By BARNABY J. FEDER
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. Call it buzz, cool, magic or whatever the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology cannot thrive without it.
But like many of the businesses that flourished during the 1990's technology boom, the lab where researchers talked about cyberspace, multimedia and virtual reality long before those words became household terms has struggled to generate excitement and reposition itself now that the bubble has burst.
In the rambunctiously creative years after its founding in 1985, the Media Lab was celebrated for its insights into how technology might change traditional forms of communication and everyday life.
These days, other research institutions are competing with the lab to create prototypes of the communication technologies of the future. Newer subjects of interest like atomic and molecular studies, as well as overseas expansion and new links to other parts of M.I.T., threaten to blur the lab's image. And raising money from corporate sponsors, who have in the past provided almost all the lab's financing, has become tougher.
"There's lots of competition now," said Robert Buderi, an editor at Technology Review, a magazine published by M.I.T., and an expert on corporate research. "I can see many of the same concepts demonstrated at places like Carnegie Mellon, Microsoft, Xerox PARC, I.B.M. and U.C. Berkeley."
Organizationally, at least, the Media Lab is still in a league of its own. In the last few years, it has given birth to sister labs in India and Ireland, as well as the Center for Bits and Atoms, a federally financed research center that concentrates on physics and chemistry projects and is housed in the lab's building, which was designed by I. M. Pei. All of them now operate under the umbrella of a new organization called Media Labs, headed by Nicholas Negroponte, the famously outspoken founding director of the Media Lab.
"Fundamentally, we bet on people and then continually experiment with how to organize it," said Walter Bender, who succeeded Dr. Negroponte as director of the original lab in September 2000. "I don't think that anyone has as diverse a collection of activities, and the real magic of the place is the interaction."
Unlike other major university research institutions, the Media Lab has always relied on its ability to attract corporate sponsors. Until the recession, the success of that approach was the envy of other institutions.
"There was a culture there of spending money like water," said Aaron Bobick, who left the Media Lab in 1999 to become the director of the Graphics, Visualization and Usability Center at Georgia Tech. "It used to be that money wasn't a reason that things couldn't get done."
The Media Lab still has plenty of corporate fans. More than 75 percent of this year's $40 million budget comes from 120 companies, which share access to the technology developed at the lab.
But attracting cash has been a struggle in recent years, leading the lab to turn increasingly to governments and foundations sources that it once ignored. Foreign governments account for most of the budgets of the sister labs overseas, and the $13.75 million grant from the National Science Foundation in late 2001 to set up the Center for Bits and Atoms far exceeded any previous contribution from Washington.
The new sources have not been enough to avoid sobering cutbacks. In 2001, the lab imposed sharp reductions in travel, restrictions on free meals and, eventually, the layoffs of 40 support employees, the first such cuts in its history.
Dr. Bender said the corporate share of the Media Lab's budget was likely to fall to about 60 percent in the coming years. Still, many of the lab's sponsors are strongly committed to its mission. Companies like BT, the former British Telecom, and Motorola, which have each donated more than $1 million annually to the lab, view it as both a window into new business opportunities and an insurance policy against being blindsided by technology developments they did not anticipate.
Motorola, for example, has been closely following the research of Andrew Lippman and others on so-called viral networks, which spread information without the central coordination typical of the kinds of networks built by Motorola and other phone equipment companies.
Dr. Lippman says he believes that cellphones may become such a decentralized network. In his view, it may soon be feasible for cellphones to locate nearby phones that are on and bounce a message from phone to phone until it reaches its destination and sets a phone ringing or vibrating without ever passing through a huge base station.
He has concluded that the phone industry is headed down an expensive technological dead end by investing heavily in new high-capacity networks of antennas and transmission stations.
Motorola does not necessarily agree with this theory, according to Matthew I. Growney, managing director of a Motorola unit that invests in new ventures. "But to go around and ignore someone like Andy would be foolish," he said.
Critics have long said that so much of the lab's research is fanciful and impractical that investing in it is foolish. Basic membership costs $100,000 annually for a minimum of three years. And there is no question that the lab has provided grist for the critics since it opened.
Dr. Negroponte, a charismatic professor from the department of architecture, recruited a diverse collection of free-thinkers in setting up the lab, including notables like Marvin Minsky, a specialist in machine intelligence, and Seymour Pappert, a well-known learning theorist. The graduate students they brought came from design, computer programming and sociology backgrounds to receive degrees in a new discipline called media arts and science.
Faculty members and students alike concentrated on creating physical models or demonstrations of their concepts of how electronics could change human expression and everyday life. "Demo or die" was the motto.
The results were diverse, including models for the children's computer clubs that Intel now sponsors around the world. Lab researchers also created computer systems that gave rise to LEGO Mindstorms, and programming now embedded in standards for sharing music over computers. But for every clearly useful result, there were 10 odd kitchen implements, strange musical instruments or computerized pieces of clothing that left most people scratching their heads.
The critiques were humorously summed up in a 1995 parody of Dr. Negroponte in VooDoo, an M.I.T. humor magazine. In an actual demonstration, the lab showed off a prototype of a "holographic television" that created a faint three-dimensional motion picture using rapidly revolving lasers and mirrors. The effect was so indistinct that Life magazine had to photograph the image against a backdrop of smoke. The magazine parody had Dr. Negroponte gloating, "We have created a demo literally from smoke and mirrors, and the corporate world bought it."
But the Media Lab culture has proved surprisingly hardy. Indeed, the Center for Bits and Atoms, led by Neil Gershenfeld, represents an attempt to extend the lab's culture into what might seem unpromising ground. The new center is so math, physics and chemistry intensive that it attracts a very different kind of student and requires much more defined experimental goals. And, as a nationally financed research center, it has many links to researchers outside the Media Lab.
But Dr. Gershenfeld said that he believed deeply in the Media Lab's approach to educating researchers and students through project work and the building of prototypes that embody concepts.
Staying within the Media Lab family, he said, encourages the center's researchers to consider applying their research to real-world needs like building desktop manufacturing systems for remote areas.
And Dr. Negroponte certainly does not see any need to take fewer risks to
avoid ridicule. "The fairest criticism is that we are spread too thin," he
said. If he were to rename the expanded lab today, he said, he would call
it simply "Other" in the hope that it would be known for doing things "that
are not bandwagons, fashions or fields, but work at the edges and in the
intersections of disciplines."