When I left the MIT Media Lab 10 years ago, someone told me: “Congratulations, you now have the coolest education on Earth. There is only one glitch… It will take the world at least five years to have any use for what you’ve learned here.”
As far as advice goes, it was good, but not good enough. They should have told me: It will take at least a decade to see anything you’ve learned implemented commercially, beyond hype and flashy demos. I may have changed my mind there and then and moved to Hollywood.
Instead, by trial and error, myself and dozens of equally lost Media Lab alumni have spent years wondering the fine line between R&D and business, lapsing back into the comfort of academia and stepping out again to follow the fickle muse of digital ventures. As if on the clock, five years ago my education clicked with what investors could understand, and today, slowly but surely, my graduate thesis is actually beginning to make sense.
But my story pales next to truly epic journeys of some Media Labbers. Take Steve Mann, for instance, also known as the First Human Cyborg. Here’s someone who for over thirty years has worn some sort eye-computer concoction, trying to live two realities – real and virtual – simultaneously.
I remember him quite conspicuous at parties, with an antenna sticking out of a gigantic helmet, the face half covered by wires and mini screens, a keyboard around his wrist and a scary-looking device strapped on to his waist. My preppy Harvard friends used to ask him, Steve, what is the actual use of this thing you are wearing – and he’d answer, well I can chat with my girlfriend while walking down the street while checking email. Everybody thought it was hilarious, but the joke was on us – Steve’s invention is about to literally change the way we see the world.
In fact, you may have already had a hint of it. Remember Minority Report? For some reason this film didn’t leave as deep a mark as its illustrious predecessors, BladeRunner and Matrix. Yet never did a sci-fi picture depict with such precision the reality to come. Minority Report borrowed quite heavily from the Media Lab. Those who do remember the film usually bring up the peculiar file browser Tom Cruise operates when looking for suspects. His computer is a wall of transparent planes suspended in thin air, and Cruise uses a glove to pull the images and data out, enlarge and open them. This beautiful design, parts of which have been copied in touchscreens, from Microsoft’s “Surface” coffee table to iPhone, was also the work of an MIT buddy. He put it together when not reading Philip K. Dick a floor above Mann’s lab, and is now – hello 10 year mark – finally commercializing his vision through a company called “Oblong Industries”.
The less memorable part of Minority Report is that every citizen is identified by his eye-retina, and is tracked by myriad of invisible computers that serve various purposes of the digital state. While it seems like the usual Big Brother reference, which no sci-fi picture can do without, the retina ID is also used for a rather mundane yet infinitely more interesting purpose of pushing personalized advertisement: the ads in the mall call you by your name, mention your last purchase and suggest new stuff you might like.
Now let’s look at the latest face of wearable computing – Steve Mann no longer wears a Cyborg contraption but something that looks as simple and inconspicuous as reading glasses. In fact, they overlay a virtual desktop on top of his reality – and soon yours. Check your email, look up directions, scan a product on the shelf…. What’s the big deal, you might ask, I already do it with my iPhone? Precisely. We have all been primed to intertwine the daily activities with our digital lives by carrying –and constantly checking– our mobile phones. Now imagine combining them, superimposing the two screens, so you can actually keep playing Sudoku while talking to your boss, or check your Facebook page while diligently taking notes at a staff meeting. You can also visually alter reality, Photoshop the world outside to your liking. And this is where a new type of ad comes in – profiled advertisement of Google kind improved through the detailed information on your location and shopping behaviour, and taken to the max through the advances in computer graphics. The neon sign wil never look the same.
There is an old fable of two men walking barefoot on a rocky road. “I have a great idea ” says the first one.” Why don’t we cover the road in leather – it would be so much easier to walk on.” “ Not bad” says the other. “ But it might be easier to use the leather to cover our feet.” Despite the clumsiness of his original prototypes, Steve Mann might be offering us the same elegant conclusion: why clutter our world with gigantic screens when a simple projection in front of our eye could create the same result?
Will this invention enhance our life or insert yet another filter between us and what’s really out there? Will it reduce the proliferation of screens or create another pathway to addiction we will not get out of? Take your pick, but it is the future.