The Shape of E-things to Come

The Media Laboratory at MIT’s campus in Cambridge, Mass., is a veritable playground for technophiles. With an annual budget of nearly US$30 million (more than 90 per cent of which comes from 160 corporate sponsors), the lab explores how computing can become part of everyday life.

The 200 or so ongoing projects, fanciful and practical, are grouped into three research consortia: Digital Life examines the connection between people and objects in an online world; News in the Future looks at technologies that will improve the collection and distribution of news; and Things That Think explores ways of infusing objects such as sneakers and chairs with intelligence.

A tour of the lab reveals a future where computers will truly be pervasive. If you think that’s the case now, with pocket-size PCs and embedded chips in everything from toasters to Lincoln Town Cars, just wait until you’re wearing a denim jacket (sponsored by Levi Strauss & Co.) spangled with “e-broidery” (conductive threads made of Teflon), unobtrusive circuit boards, pint-size MIDI (musical instrument digital interface) synthesizers and tiny loudspeakers. Called the Musical Jacket, it makes a fetching fashion statement, and that’s not just whistling Dixie – which, of course, it does.

Another highlight is the Counter Intelligence project. In an area cluttered with bananas, doughnuts and yogurt cups, researchers are hard at work developing the “self-aware” kitchen: refrigerators with databases that track food expiration dates, countertops that monitor recipe ingredients and ovens with Internet connections that automatically calibrate temperature and cooking time.

With innovations like these, don’t be surprised if one day you find yourself dancing to the beat of your Musical Jacket while your kitchen prepares dinner all by itself.