July 2009

Heather Knight '06, SM '08, at Ignite LA.

Heather Knight '06, SM '08, at Ignite LA.

Think of it as stand-up for geeks. Ignite, a mesmerizing event series, creates a  stage for the technology-minded to present ideas fast—five minutes of microphone time with 20 slides clicking forward every 15 seconds.

Naturally, some MIT folks have hit the stage. Heather Knight ’06, SM ’08 of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab described how to make robots more social on a YouTube video filmed at Ignite LA on July 21. Her talk, “Turning AI Gurus into Comets: The Rise of the Charismatic Machine” describes an interactive installation she and a JPL team created for an artificial intelligence conference: they transformed participants’ cell phone signals into comet visualizations whizzing in space. She acknowledged her friendly robot bias, having worked in MIT’s Personal Robots Group and for the French firm Aldebaran Robotics, the first European humanoid robot manufacturer.

Inventor Saul Griffith SM ’01, PhD ’04, a 2007 MacArthur genius fellow, presented an Ignite talk on his cartoon book Howtoons. The title? “Subverting science education: HOWTOONS seeks to put joy, story, adventure, free-spirit, fun & ridiculousness, back into informal science education.”

Ignite was started by Brady Forrest, technology evangelist for O’Reilly Media, and Bre Pettis of Etsy.com, and inspired by Pecha Kucha Nights, where creatives got six minutes and 20 slides to share ideas. The first Ignite was held in Seattle in 2006 and the events have spread across the across the U.S. and worldwide. Check out the How-To section of the Ignite site to plan your own local geekathon.

Our post listing five revolutionary video games spawned from the minds of MIT alumni generated much buzz—and a list of other games and developers that should also be included.

So, like the best of all sequels, here is another installment of groundbreaking, inventive, and really cool video games, all with ties to MIT.

A view of Maze

A view of Maze

1974 and 1978: Maze and Trivia
Dave Lebling ’71, SM ’73 (of Zork fame) and Greg Thompson ’78 cowrote Maze, the first 3-D multiplayer first-person shooter game based on a simpler game Thompson had worked on at NASA Ames. It was played over the ARPANET to USC as a tour de force. Trivia, a user-contribution trivia game that was a run-up to Zork, was created by Lebling; Tim Anderson ’75, SM ’77; and Marc Blank ’75 and widely played over the ARPANET. Lebling also wrote in to note that many, if not most, of Infocom’s games were written by MIT alums and that Stu Galley SM ’70 should be added to the list as an Infocom “Imp.”

1980 & 1981: Defender and its sequel, Stargate
Larry Demar ’79 codesigned these games. These days, his company, Leading Edge Design (LED), creates gaming concepts for casinos.

1981: Ms. Pac-Man
Was originally conceived as a bootlegged hack of Pac-Man called Crazy Otto and created by Doug Macrae NON ’81 and Kevin Curran NON ’81, founders of then video-game company General Computer Corporation. Eventually Atari hired the pair to make games for them legitimately.

1984: John Madden Football
Rob Hunter ’73 made the deal and signed the contract between CBS Video Games and John Madden for the original game. He codeveloped the game construct (as far as he knows, the first ¾ over-the-shoulder view of any sports game) with Madden’s active involvement.

Screen shot of the game Thief

Screen shot of the game Thief

1992, 1994, & 1998: Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss, System Shock, & Thief
Philip Tan ’01, SM ’03 wrote in to say that Looking Glass Studios had numerous MIT alums working on its first-person computer role-playing, action role-playing, and stealth video games. Those alums dispersed to various parts of the industry (like Harmonix, Electronic Arts, Mind Control Software, and Irrational Games/2K Boston) when the company closed.

1999: Asheron’s Call
Eri Izawa ’92 codesigned this game, a first-generation MMORPG.

1999-2005: NBA 2K, 2K1, & 2K2; Panzer Dragoon; Fantastic 4
Trevor Stricker ’97 codeveloped these and is currently working on Quick Hit Football with Denise Ichinco ’09.

2004: Revolution
Students and faculty at MIT’s Education Arcade developed this multiplayer, American Revolution-themed role-playing game.

A screen shot of the game Cogs

Screen shot of the game Cogs

2007: The Witcher
Sande Chen ’92 was nominated for a Writers Guild of America award for outstanding achievement in videogame writing for this, the 2007 PC role-playing game of the year.

2009: Cogs
Rob Jagnow SM ’01, PhD ’05 and his company, Lazy 8 Studios, released this game for the PC in April. It’s an innovative puzzle in which players build a variety of machines from sliding tiles. Jagnow did all the programming and level design.

And, of course, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab, a collaboration between the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the government of Singapore created to explore new directions for the development of games as a medium.

Fire hydrant connected to a drinking fountainThis month’s issue of Quick Take offers a sip from the fire hose with a look at fluid—alum innovations in olive oil, fluid trampolines that represent chaos theory, an understanding of traffic flows—you get the picture. And one section, called Drink, offers numerous new stanzas proposed for the Engineers’ Drinking Song as composed by alumni partaking in last year’s Alumni Association puzzle hunt. If you haven’t read them, or need a refresher of the standard lyrics, take a look.

And, for your enjoyment, here’s a video of the Chorallaries of MIT (students and alumni) performing the song at a spring 2009 concert.

Margaret and Joseph Wong in front of the Great Dome. Photo: Margaret Wong

Margaret Wong (neé Chong) '04, SM '04 and Joseph Wong '04, SM '04 in front of the Great Dome. Photo: Margaret Wong

Class of ′04 alums Margaret and Joseph Wong met during pre-frosh weekend in 1999 and started dating through 8.01 and 18.02. Today the couple runs a successful wedding planning Web site called Project Wedding, which collaborates closely with online dating service eHarmony.

Margaret recently reflected on her work, MIT’s impact on it, and the effects of the country’s financial turmoil on the wedding industry.

Slice: How did you get involved with eHarmony and Project Wedding?

MW: Joe and I started Project Wedding when we were planning our own wedding, to help connect brides with each other and share vendor reviews, inspirational photos, and planning tips and advice. About eight months after we started Project Wedding, Joe got an interesting private message from a bride on the site… who turned out to be an eHarmony executive interested in acquiring us. Now we work on Project Wedding on a daily basis at eHarmony headquarters.

Slice: How does your MIT education inform your work?

MW: Probably the most important thing I learned at MIT was from 6.170 (software lab for the old-school techies), which is KISS, “Keep it Simple, Stupid.” When designing Project Wedding, I keep KISS in mind and focus on what our audience really craves, and filter out all the noise.

I should also add that without my MIT education, I would never have met Joe during pre-frosh weekend. It was through 8.01 and 18.02 that Joe and I started dating. Who knew that nerd love would lead us to eventually get married, which prompted us to start our own company in the wedding and publishing business.

Slice: Has the economic volatility of the last year or so affected activity on eHarmony and PW?

MW: The average wedding budget has decreased dramatically over the past year because of layoffs and economic hardship. As a result, we’re seeing a huge surge of traffic of Project Wedding (over 500,000 brides visit every month) because people are searching online for the best vendor deals using our vendor reviews, creative do it yourself projects, and advice from other brides on how to plan a dream wedding on a budget. For example, one of Project Wedding’s brides got married in Southern California for less than $5,000, which is amazing!

eHarmony’s singles matching service has also seen an increase in registrations. Many people are taking the time to re-evaluate their lives and find that they want to find someone to share their life with. Research shows that stress, including financial pressure, can orient singles to want a strong, close relationship more.

Slice: What do you love most about your work?

I love that I get to think up new and beautiful ways to help people plan the beginning of their new life together. I read and look at the most beautiful images and love stories everyday. I get to work with my husband everyday. We’re with each other 24/7 and I really enjoy working with him, much to the surprise of some people. 😉 It’s a pretty awesome job.

The tiny Bokode device, center, contains far more information than conventional barcodes.

The Bokode, center, contains far more information than conventional barcodes.

Barcodes are ubiquitous, producing little pops of information at checkout counters worldwide. The Media Lab has come up with a new, tinier barcode that could provide information useful to shoppers as they scan the shelves and could lead to new types of presentation devices, video games, or motion-capture systems.

The new system, called Bokode, is based on a different way of encoding visual information, says Media Lab Associate Professor Ramesh Raskar, who leads the lab’s Camera Culture group. The new approach encodes data in the angular dimension: Rays of light coming from the new tags vary in brightness depending on the angle at which they emerge. The name Bokode comes from the Japanese photography term bokeh, which refers to the round blob produced in an out-of-focus image of a light source. The Bokode system uses an out-of-focus camera—which allows the angle-encoded information to emerge from the resulting blurred spot— to record the encoded information from the tiny tag.

Bokodes have several advantages. They can be read from several meters away by a cell phone camera; they can provide much more information, such as a complete nutritional description; and you can scan several nearby items to compare them.

Gregory Liszt PhD '06, left, with theCrooked Still band.

Gregory Liszt PhD '06, left, with Crooked Still.

A bluegrass band that began life practicing in MIT’s biology building? Now that’s worth a listen on NPR’s On Point—especially how that MIT connection came to be. The connection is Gregory Liszt PhD ’06, who earned his PhD in biology while he plied his banjo with the other early members of Crooked Still. The band, founded in 2001, now plays major festivals and club gigs in the U.S. and abroad.

Crooked Still consciously weaves together genres such as improvised old time music, bluegrass, folk, and their own string band songs. The Boston Globe called it “the most important folk group to emerge from Boston since the early 60’s.” They have been praised for their highly creative arrangements, funky rhythms, and brilliant musicianship.

Get some background on Liszt’s own musical style in an interview conducted shortly after he had toured with the Bruce Springsteen Seeger Sessions band, an 18-piece group celebrating and modernizing Pete Seeger’s collection of original music.

Check the Crooked Still web site for upcoming gigs and how to find their music, including a new album, Crooked Still Live!

Feuillantine de queues de langoustines aux graines de sésame, sauce curry, created by Chef Bernard Pacaud at L'Ambroisie, a Michelin three-star restaurant, Place des Vosges, Paris. (© Owen Franken)

Feuillantine de queues de langoustines aux graines de sésame, sauce curry, created by Chef Bernard Pacaud at L'Ambroisie, a Michelin three-star restaurant, Place des Vosges, Paris. (© Owen Franken)

Curious about Owen Franken? View more of his work via the Franken Photo of the Week category, learn more in this profile, read a What Matters opinion column he wrote called “Life in Brownian Motion,” or visit his Web site.

I live in a house with six other people (half of whom graduated from MIT), and together we care for three ducks, two chickens, and several tanks of fish. I can say with total confidence that our house produces a lot of trash.

Now some of that trash—food scraps, coffee grounds, the straw used to line the duck run, etc—gets composted in our backyard, and then we use the compost as garden fertilizer, or we give it away.

But the rest of our trash disappears along with the recycling on Friday mornings. And I have no idea where it goes.

Researchers at MIT’s SENSEable City lab are hoping to change that. A new project called Trash Track is using location-aware smart tags to document where 3,000 pieces of garbage go once they have been disposed of, with the dual intention of making the refuse removal chain more transparent and highlighting potential inefficiencies in city sanitation systems.

Alum and associate director of the lab Assaf Biderman ′05 recently told Popular Science that, “The study of what we could call the ‘removal chain’ is becoming as important as that of the supply chain.'”

Below, check out a screenshot of a visualization depicting the route of a Starbucks coffee cup in Seattle:


The Trash Talk project will be exhibited at the Architectural League in New York City and in Seattle starting September 2009. Stay tuned for details.

This Mens et Manus design by Brian Chan won awards in the 2006-07 MIT Origami Contest for best MIT-themed model and best original design.

This Mens et Manus design by Brian Chan won awards in the 2006-07 MIT Origami Contest for best MIT-themed model and best original design.

If your “summer” is anything like we’re having in Boston, you’re looking for some fun indoor activities while you wait out the rain. How about some origami?

In the video below, origami expert Brian Chan ’02, SM ’04, PhD ’09 shows you—in time-lapsed, five-minute fashion—how to fold your own brass rat in under an hour. Although an hour for him is probably more like three to everyone else. Or five. Or 15. Be sure to watch until the very end. While I’m just speculating, I’m guessing no MIT staff member solicited those comments.

If you need something simpler to try, view Chan’s online origami gallery. Many designs come with templates of the crease patterns so you can fold your own. Try a maple leaf in a pretty fall shade (because, let’s face it, for some of us it’s pretty much just autumn), a frog, a crab, or more.

Solar eclipseMore than 60 MIT travelers headed to Asia to witness today’s total solar eclipse from two vantage points: on a boat in the Pacific Ocean with MIT Professor of Physics Ed Bertschinger and Dishui Lake in China, near the shores of the East China Sea, with MIT Professor of Planetary Astronomy Richard Binzel.

But forecasted clouds in parts of China threatened to bar the Dishui Lake group from the rare occurrence. Dishui is a large, circular man-made lake with a wide promenade surrounding it, offering unobstructed views of the sky. The site is so good, even the CBS Evening News chose to capture the event there. Professor Binzel has reported in and luckily, Mother Nature was feeling generous. “The clouds thinned, just enough, minutes before totality!” he said. “Spectacular view of the eclipse, with thick clouds interfering for about one minute during the 5 minutes 43 seconds of totality. Forty minutes later, pouring rain.”

On July 22, the CBS Evening News aired footage of these MIT travelers and interviewed Binzel. Watch for strategic placement of the MIT flag in the background. And, check out a CNN.com article about the festivities that quoted Binzel.

The other group had clear weather and spectacular views of the eclipse. Its boat traveled to the coordinates 24 degrees, 12.2 minutes north and 144 degrees, 7 minutes east, the exact location of the center line of the path of totality, where the eclipse was to be the longest. They were likely the only group in the world to see the eclipse at its maximum duration of 6 minutes and 38.9 seconds. The group actually used the forward motion of the ship along the center line to push the length of totality a tenth of a second longer, to 6 minutes and 39 seconds.

Learn more about the MIT Alumni Travel Program and the solar eclipse trips to China and Japan that the MIT travelers are enjoying. And, read about the eclipse on the MIT News Office site.


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