MIT's Mind-Bending Media Lab

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab, founded in 1985, has given birth to such inventions as the video game Guitar Hero and e-Ink, the screen display used in the Amazon Kindle. In March, the prolific design and engineering center opened a new $90 million wing designed by Japanese architect Fumihiko Maki.

The 163,000-square-foot addition emphasizes transparency. Its exterior walls are glass, as are many on the inside. Eight laboratories are spread over six floors, and some space is shared with the university's architecture and planning school. Each lab houses several teams attacking a central theme from different angles. In one, engineers, computer scientists, and other researchers work on cutting-edge education technologies. Another group has the assignment of imagining an ideal city and then designing a car suitable for motoring around it. "Serendipity occurs when you discover an invention or a person who has an idea or a thought that you might be interested in that day," says director Frank Moss. "The building makes that happen."

MIT's Media Lab expansion hosts a range of new research projects:

East Lab (2nd and 3rd floors): Home of "biomechatronics"—the study of prosthetics and exoskeletons. A team run by an engineer who lost both legs in a climbing accident has developed the Powered Ankle-Foot. It uses battery-driven motors to help lower-limb amputees walk. Sensors on the bottom detect terrain and aid in balance.

Nicholas G. Hayek Swatch Lab (3rd and 4th floors): Here's where a group is working on the CityCar, a vehicle designed for the "smart city" of the future. CityCars will fold up for compact storage at electrical charging stations. They're powered by motors in each wheel, which allows them to move sideways for easy parking and pivot 360 degrees. Two companion projects are focusing on super-efficient electric scooters and bicycles.

LEGO Learning Lab (4th and 5th floors): Before this lab moved to the new wing, it produced Lego's Mindstorm toy robots. Today, one project is Sixth Sense, a wearable computer in which keyboard and mouse are supplanted by the user's fingers. Hand movements become commands. A tiny projector turns any surface into a display: Your bare wrist can become a virtual watch, an ordinary newspaper can feature live video.

Telmex Lab for Communications and Development (4th and 5th floors): Here, the "camera culture" team is using inexpensive imaging devices to update the scan code. The Bokode looks like a dot, 3 millimeters across. It can contain well over 10 megabytes of information. That might be reams of product data and instructions or a song download. Software will allow consumers to access this information using a smartphone camera.

BT Lab for a Connected World (3rd and 4th floors): One theme here is "tangible media." An example is a 3D modeling system called SandScape. It's a box full of sand-like beads that are really a computer interface. If you form them into a mound or sand castle, those precise shapes appear on a display.

Motorola Innovation Lab (5th floor): The Living Wall project uses "smart" wallpaper to turn an ordinary surface into a household control panel for lighting, heating, appliances, and sound systems.

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