December 2009


In Wired’s GeekDad column, you can learn about geeky measurements, introduced with the tale of MIT’s legendary Smoot marks.

11 Ways Geeks Measure the World includes milliwheatons, a sum of 500 Twitter fans based on Star Trek Next Generation actor Wil Wheaton’s burgeoning Twitter fanscape.

Don’t miss Warhols (fame duration), Hyneman (mustache density), and more.

Members of the MIT community have a history of transforming visual effects. Herbert Kalmus (1903) and MIT Physics Professor Daniel Comstock codeveloped Technicolor (yes, it was named after MIT) and Bill Warner ’80 created the Avid digital editing system. And now Eliot Mack SM ’96 hopes to add his name to the list. His portable Previzion system enables accurate matching of live-action foregrounds and computer-generated backgrounds so directors can see beyond a green screen at how the final shot will look. Watch video of the technology in action.

Previzion being used on set

To add backgrounds in post-production, technicians have to know exact camera positions and lens optical parameters used during filming. Currently, visual tracking involves 3,000-pound cranes fitted with rotary measuring devices that lack complete accuracy. Mack's invention puts Intersense optical-inertial and Airtrack inertial sensors onto the camera itself, which precisely record necessary data and eliminate the need to manually figure out tracking info.

While green-screen technology is not new (meteorologists swear by it), creating live photorealistic images with it is. Current technology has problems accounting for motion tracking, image resolution, focusing and defocusing background shots, and capturing lens adjustment calibrations, which are crucial for post-production work. Mack has refined his technology to automatically generate camera tracking data and to not miss a single strand of hair against the backdrop. “Essentially, we’re recreating the world on the fly,” he says. So far, it’s been used on the television show V, the upcoming Tim Burton movie Alice in Wonderland, and the Knight Rider made-for-TV movie.

How does it work?
Consider the typical FX process. A show is recorded against a green screen, then digitized and loaded into a computer. An artist keys out the green, then another team manually identifies all the camera tracking and calibration points, which can take days for just one shot (a special-effects-laden movie would contain hundreds or thousands of such shots). Next, a team fills in the background, and yet another artist composites all the images together, all of which can take weeks or months. Mack’s invention can, with simpler backgrounds (like those usually found in TV), generate final-quality output in real time that just needs to be edited, scored, and distributed. Post-production time can still be cut by weeks for more complex scenes by fixing any lighting issues on set and using the tracking data Previzion generates (see photo caption). (more…)

With 2010 on the horizon, many journalists and commentators have been surveying the year in review and commenting on its themes and trends. The financial crisis and its attendant challenges—high unemployment and the sluggish economy, etc—has been central to many conversations.

One question some MIT alumni and faculty members are asking is, can the Institute improve things in 2010? Technological innovation is one thing, but what about stimulating economic growth? For an assessment of MIT’s impact on local, regional, and global economies, Slice turned to a report released by the Kauffman Foundation.

According to the study Entrepreneurial Impact: The Role of MIT:

  • If the active companies founded by MIT graduates formed an independent nation, their revenues would make that nation at least the seventeenth-largest economy in the world.
  • An estimated 6,900 MIT alumni companies with worldwide sales of approximately $164 billion are located in Massachusetts alone and represent 26 percent of the sales of all Massachusetts companies.
  • 4,100 MIT alumni-founded firms are based in California, and generate an estimated $134 billion in worldwide sales.
  • States currently benefiting most from jobs created by MIT alumni companies are Massachusetts (estimated at just under one million jobs worldwide); California (estimated at 526,000 jobs), New York (estimated at 231,000 jobs), Texas (estimated at 184,000) and Virginia (estimated at 136,000).

Overall, the study found that the overwhelming majority of alumni-founded companies have the potential to stimulate local economies because so many of them are manufacturing, biotech, software or consulting firms that sell to national and world markets.

Want to learn more? Read the full report.

To those who don’t look under the hood of web sites, Drupal may be a foreign concept. In fact, this open source content management system (CMS) is sweeping the web landscape because of its flexibility, fast evolution, and focus on growing a community of users. In fact, MIT’s Information Services and Technology (IS&T) group and a growing number of other MIT departments are choosing Drupal as their CMS of choice.

In a fall talk hosted by Sustainability at MIT, Drupal founder Dries Buytaert relates a synopsis of his life with Drupal. From its inception during Buytaert’s typical geek undergraduate days in Antwerp in 1999, to the upcoming release of Drupal 7, Buytaert places a particular emphasis on the community that has been created by the nature of an open source product. Drupal is “software to build websites with” intended for anyone to modify and improve then redistribute to its users.

“Drupal is a ‘Do-ocracy’, meaning the stuff that gets into Drupal 7 is the stuff that people like you actually worked on,” says Buytaert. Watch the MIT World video of Buytaert’s talk….you might wind up at the next Drupalcon—April in San Francisco.

Tom Imrich, left, will test pilot a new Boeing aircraft.

Tom Imrich, left, will testpilot a new Boeing aircraft.

Tom Imrich’69, SM ’71 graced the December cover of Boeing’s house magazine, Frontiers, as a copilot for a new aircraft, the 747-8 Freighter. Imrich, a senior test pilot, will begin flying the 747  in 2010 as part of a massive test flight operation also involving the 787 Dreamliner and, with the U.S. Navy, a new P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol and surveillance aircraft.

Being a test pilot at Boeing means working with engineers throughout the design development. “A first flight will always be interesting and exciting,” but not exciting in a dangerous sense,  Imrich told Frontiers. “It’s very rare and few and far between that you find something that doesn’t go as planned.”

Find out more in an alumni profile about Imrich’s career and how he got involved in the Aeronautics and Astronautics Department at MIT.

Sunbeams inside St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican City (© Owen Franken).

Sunbeams inside St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican City (© Owen Franken).

Curious about Owen Franken? See 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. And, view his exhibition, A Photography Retrospective, through early January 2010 at the Gallery at Vivid Solutions, 2208 Martin Luther King Ave. SE, Washington, DC.

Guest Blogger: Steve Lustig ’93

As they approached graduation, Omprakash Gnawali ’01 , SM ’02 and Hesky Fisher ’02 talked about starting a non-profit organization to help out children in Omprakash’s native Nepal. With the help of a social worker in Nepal and some other interested friends at MIT, the Nepalese Children’s Education Fund (NCEF) was born. As Omprakash explains, “We gathered a group of students who wanted to stop talking and start doing.”

Volunteers distribute educational materials.

Volunteers distribute educational materials.

Today NCEF is a non-profit organization whose mission is to develop the potential of disadvantaged Nepalese children through education. NCEF identifies children unable to pursue education because of the economic situation of their families. Students are provided with tuition, textbooks and supplies to enroll in school. Our dedicated network of volunteers in Nepal meet regularly with the children and their parents to monitor the progress of the student through school. We dedicate our resources to each child until they complete their high school education. NCEF is sponsoring over 60 students this year, making a major impact on their lives and those of their families. Why focus on education, when there are a variety of needs waiting to be met? Omprakash comments, “Most people that I know who have been successful in leading a life with some basic human dignity have been able to do so through education.”

As MIT students, the first thing they did was set up a website for the charity. At the time they laughed that this was a very nerdy way to start a charity. However, it very quickly began to pay off. While they recruited and raised funds among friends and family and even found a board member by posting in the Tech Review, it was through the web site that most people found NCEF. It didn’t take long before they started getting contacted by people across the U.S. and the world wanting to get involved.

As the founding members of NCEF were graduating and moved far from each other, it became clear that the organization existed as a distributed entity with the web site at its center. Most records are kept directly on the web site—transparency is an important aspect. Members collaborate over email and phone conferences as there is no paid staff or office, which allows more of the money to be spent directly on funding the childrens’ education. Many members…

Learn how alumni and students help today…

(more…)

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