MIT Media Lab connects humans to the electronic nervous system

Rosemont, IL. Connecting humans to the emerging electronic nervous system will be a key challenge facing engineers, according to Dr. Joseph A. Paradiso, Director, Responsive Environments Group, at the MIT Media Lab. In a June 5 keynote speech at Sensors Expo, he said we are well into the age of opportunistic sensors whose technologies are changing lives.

He recounted the efforts of nine students in the Media Lab who, he said, are not only engineers but artists as well—and both disciplines will contribute to the exploitation of ubiquitous sensors.

Sensors, he said, follow a corollary of Moore's law—they keep getting smaller. Yet they also want to be networked. What's needed, Paradiso said, are network protocols that will enable the devices to communicate. Such capabilities are already emerging, he said, citing as an example Qualcomm's AllJoyn.

Paradiso alluded to Marshall McLuhan's comment that the electric circuit is an extension of the central nervous system and said we now need to determine what happens when sensors meet sapiens.  And it's going to happen fast, he said. We already have an electronic nervous system covering the planet.

The electronic nervous system, he said, can communicate danger or empathy as well as enhance proprioception. He described wearable athletic systems, with which the lab has outfitted the Boston Red Sox, and he described distributed actuators as well—such as prosthetic devices and FreeD, a handheld digitally controlled milling machine designed by student Amit Zoran that operates in accordance with CAD files yet preserves the user's freedom to modify the design in creative ways.

He described in detail the use of browsers to monitor sensors, and from the Sensors Expo suburban Chicago location he was able to monitor the many sensors distributed throughout the Media Lab building in Cambridge—the sensors control the HVAC system and monitor people coming and going. “A building should know me,” he said, and react in ways that optimize the environment of everyone present.

The thermostat is obsolete, he said. It can't react to frequent and erratic adjustments, and thermostats are often locked. He proposed an alternative in which occupants wear a wrist band that lets them indicate if they are too hot or too cold. The building can respond appropriately as people who prefer to be warmer or cooler come and go. Such a system, he said, not only minimizes discomfort but also cuts energy consumption by 25%. Similarly, lighting control is broken, he said, adding that wearable light sensors and face-tracking technology can provide context-aware lighting, again saving energy.

Sensors can also be deployed outdoors, he said, citing as an example the Tidmarsh Farms Living Observatory. That installation, he said, includes hundreds of low-power sensor nodes whose batteries last two years.

He cited several other student projects, including a passive RFID finger trackers designed by Rachel Bainbridge. He also described Alexander Reben's Boxie, a cardboard robot able to extract stories and otherwise elicit emotional responses from people. Boxie has been described as “The World's Cutest Surveillance Robot Videographer.” The various projects, he concluded, are addressing the challenge of connecting humans to the electronic nervous system.

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