From a silk orb built by man and worms to a robot magician’s assistant: 5 cool things at MIT

It’s always invigorating to visit MIT’s Media Lab. It’s a bright shiny Montessori school for smart adults — and occasionally a gaggle of reporters. Here are my highlights from this year’s tour — part of the  EmTech 2013 conference.

1: Silk sculpture

The Silk Pavilion looks like a beautiful, ethereal sculpture — which it is — but its also a hybrid of man-made and organic creation that paired the work of 6,500 silk worms toiling away on a pre-constructed scaffold.

The project, which relied on a computer-numerically-controlled (CNC) arm to build the skeleton, could end up enabling big construction projects in which a raft of such machines would work together to fabricate buildings, said our tour host Andrew Lippmann, associate director of the Lab. More here on this by the lab’s Mediated Matter Group.

Silk Road at MIT Media Lab

2: VR Codes

Lipmmann showed off video response or VR codes, which pack dynamic video information into TV or graphic displays.  This code is unseen by the human eye but gets picked up by smartphones. That means you can snap a picture of a display that interests you and your phone will pull out all sorts of information that may come in handy for later viewing.

VRCodes (without the space) are now under development by Pixels.IO, a lab spin off,  which explains them thus:

“Any display can be a transmitter and any phone can be a receiver. Further, data can be rendered invisibly on the screen.”

Andrew Lippman describes VR code.

Andrew Lippman descripes VR code.

3: Robots

And no Media Lab tour would be complete without robots. David Nunez showed off several models including an MDS — Mobile Dextrous Social — model that looks like a toy but could do serious work as personal companion for sick or disabled people, or even folks who just need a hand around the house.

But my favorite was a demo Nunez ran in which he called up a customized Rethink Robotics’ Baxter robot in New York City to show how it can be trained or controlled remotely. That robot will be a partner to magician (well, cyber illusionist) Marco Tempest (shown above right).

David Nunez communicates with customized Baxter robot via Skype.

David Nunez communicates with customized Baxter robot via Skype.

Check out a video below about Baxter’s training to be a magician’s assistant.


4: The wisdom of buttons

You couldn’t miss these large red buttons and screens placed on walls around the building. They are part of BTNZ!, a project to see if a device displaying simple text messages — which can be nonsensical or provide information about events, etc — can promote social interaction. Data from those interactions is aggregated and evaluated in a crowdsourcing project.

BTNZ! project uses buttons and screens to promote social interaction.

BTNZ! project uses buttons and screens to promote social interaction.

5: Hybrid Porsches

If you want to sell high-end cars to a well-heeled crowd — EmTech with lots of VCs and tech execs in attendance — is a good demographic. So, Porsche (a show sponsor) was on site with hybrid Panamera S E-Hybrids available for test rides. Sadly, I was unable to partake.

Hybrid Porsches on display at MIT Media Lab.

Hybrid Porsches on display at MIT Media Lab.

If you want more on what the lab is up to, check out last year’s tour highlights.

Photos by Barb Darrow