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…


Alumnus Tim Creamer answers a reporter's question during a press conference held in Kazakhstan two days before the Soyuz launch.

Yesterday alumnus Tim Creamer and two other crew members arrived at the International Space Station to join Expedition 22. The crew launched aboard the Russian Soyuz TMA-17 spacecraft on December 21st from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. It is  the first time that Creamer SM ’92 has been to space.

While at the station, Creamer and his colleagues in Expedition 21 and 22 will work on setting up and activating new research facilities. They’ll activate the new Combined Operational Load-Bearing External Resistance Treadmill (COLBERT); unberth the Japanese H-II Transfer Vehicle when its supply mission is complete; and welcome a new Russian docking module, two shuttle crews and a Progress resupply ship.

Creamer is expected to remain at the space station for six months. You can read his full bio on the NASA Web site and follow his progress on twitter @Astro_TJ.

He is expected to remain at the station for the next six months.

Erik Demaine

Click photo to check out a video clip of MIT associate professor Erik Demaine from the show.

Between the Folds, part of PBS’ Independent Lens series, spotlights ten masters of the art and science of origami, including MIT associate professor Erik Demaine and Brian Chan ’02, SM ’04, PhD ’09. Works from those featured on the program range from minimalist designs to paper caricatures reminiscent of Daumier and Picasso to creations using advanced computations. The result is a look at how the creativity inherent in origami blurs the lines between art and science.

Check your local listings for air times.

The show’s Web site also offers a history of origami and a Match the Folds game to see if you can discern the finished product from a fold pattern.

Visionary Engineer, Harold Edgerton, an MIT Museum exhibit showcasing MIT’s new digital collection of works by Harold “Doc” Edgerton, is the literal tip of the iceberg. Edgerton, the renowned MIT professor, inventor and engineer, may be best known for transforming the stroboscope into a tool that could stop action and show the world in photos and films how a milk drop splashes, how a hummingbird flies, and how bombs explode. At the museum, you can see films, original artifacts, plus plus a new ‘piddler’ machine built for this exhibition.

Drop of milk captured by Doc Edgerton.

Drop of milk captured by Doc Edgerton.

The rest of the iceberg is the vast digital repository of his work now available online. The Edgerton Digital Collections (EDC) project makes 22,000 still images, 150 films and video, and thousands of pages of hand written notes available online. Check the galleries for iconic images, learn about his techniques, and review his notebooks.

On TechTV, you can see what formations milk takes on when it is dropped in a slow motion film by Edgerton, who died, still teaching as a professor emeritus at age 87, in 1990. This 78-video collection also includes slow-motion explosions of two-ton BlockBuster bombs and sand dollars burying themselves in the ocean floor.

Edgeron’s biography shows a man in motion. In 1927, Edgerton earned a master’s degree in electrical engineering, and in 1931, he earned his PhD. His doctoral dissertation included a high-speed motion picture of a motor in motion, made with a mercury-arc stroboscope. Edgerton soon developed and improved strobes and used them to freeze objects in motion in both still photographs and ultra-high-speed movies. He worked with photojournalists, entertainers, and, at the request of the military, he developed a nighttime aerial reconnaissance photography system that was used in WWII. He published many articles in National Geographic magazine including, “Hummingbirds in Action,” in 1947. The article contained high-speed photographs that illustrated for the first time the wing movement and flight patterns of these tiny birds. He worked with Jacques-Yves Cousteau, building underwater flashes and cameras and then acoustic devices that measured distances underwater, which were used  to locate an H-bomb off the coast of Spain. And he did much, much more.

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