Week Notes 1828/1829 - Two Types of Media Lab Presentations

It’s already October and well into the semester. Deadlines for adjusting course schedules have passed. Project deadlines are coming up and whatever passes for “routine” around here is taking over.

I think this is all best characterized by something Laura (another new student) said to me earlier today, “We’re pretty much done with the ‘settling in’ time.” Indeed, I’m not going to get any more settled than this. It’s now squarely time for disruptive thinking and making.

A couple of weeks ago, I was required to give presentations for two of my classes and was struck by how each mini-talk required quite different styles of content and presentation.

Data Centric Projects Presentation

The point of the class is to work, over the semester, on a research project that has a very significant data analysis and visualization component. Students in the class get assigned coaching and mentorship from 1 of 4 professors co-teaching the course. (These professors happen to be rock stars in data analysis, etc). Thus, the size of the class is limited and we were to be prepared to talk for 7 minutes or less about our projects as an “audition.” (It turned out that there was an exact number of projects presented as would be accepted… they were all amazing and I’m looking forward to hearing more about each of them).

My presentation was about the work I’ve been doing with Android based tablets (Xooms) that we’ve shipped to Ethiopia filled with literacy software. The longterm vision is to create a network of apps, then toys, and then robots that craft a personalized learning system - specifically to address early literacy development.

The basic story I told in my presentaion was:

  1. Literacy is important.
  2. Exposure to words is a deciding factor.
  3. Tablets are a start to helping kids see more words.
  4. Our tablets in Africa (and soon, rural areas of the US) can help promote scaffolded learning experiences.
  5. The tablets are currently recording terrabytes of very dense, noisy data.
  6. I don’t know how to tell the story about what’s happening with these devices.

It was an awesome experience (I had to do some last minute slide rearranging and summarizing because they really were being super strict with time. In my rehearsals, I was going 3 minutes over, consistently).

This was what I will call, loosely, a Media Lab Reality Based Vision presentation:

  1. it was grounded in real work (with (gasp) real data to back up claims… suprisingly this is rare in this kind of educational intervention).
  2. it presented the work in the context of a very large vision of a radical way of teaching; creating a system of virtual and physical cognitive support devices that ‘grow up’ with a child. (see inspiration from Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer in The Diamond Age)

The process of building these slides and piecing together bits of work was quite satisfying as I felt very confident and validated that, yes, the work I’m doing matters and will go somewhere.

As a side note, this past week I also worked very intimately with this data set to help cynthia with a useful plot of tablet usage in Wonchi… it’s a mess, and we have a long way to go to make the data usable. There’s a lot of normalization that needs to happen, but even just a basic “get all the data into one bucket” pass would do wonders.

Tangible Interfaces Presentation

I also gave a presentation that I will categorize as “Media Lab Practical Science Fiction.” This was for my Tangible Interfaces class. The professor routinely pushes us to think about how we will interact, physically, with systems 100 years from now. In class, he’s laying down the groundwork that goes from graphic user interfaces (pixels), to physical/tangible interfaces (atoms), to materials that have computation, sensors, and extreme malleability/mobility built in (“radical atoms”). This kind of work is what you think about when you see really well designed videos and presentations of way out-there vision coming from the Media Lab.

I was initially suprised and even disturbed by how the Computer-Human Interaction field relied so heavily on mock ups and non-functional prototypes – I’ve heard the TAs say, “It’s fine to ‘Wizard of Oz’ your demos” (i.e. puppeteer the interaction behind the scenes rather than actually make it work).

Coming from a world of engineering and problem solving for paying clients, this was hard to swallow. As I think about it, the design exercise of communicating how an interaction might work without having to go through the pain and torture of actually making it work is really valuable. Rapid iterations, fail fast, etc. In fact, this design process is used pretty extensively in the software development world - getting playables, as early on as possible, into the hands of users is rather important. It allows you to fail early and cheaply to get better.

So we’ve had lectures on using stop motion photography and clay and other “tricks” to demo our ideas initially. Of course, because this is MIT, these prototypes have a lot more weight when they start actually working and doing things. Fake it until you make it, in a very real sense.

This class is helping me shake loose my professional “bug fixing” and “engineer for scaling” and “overengineering” streaks. I’m learning it’s actually ok to bring an idea just enough to life to push thinking in a direction.

Our first assignment was to invent a new and interesting way for ideation. “How can we use a tangible interface in the process of idea creation, brainstorming, etc?”

I presented an idea I called tinder as an intervention on long term ideation. It relied on some fairly impossible technology which doesn’t exist yet but may exist in the next couple of decades… For example, I suggested paper shards that could self-assemble into larger sheets based on what’s written on them.

I challenged myself not to let that pesky “reality” interfere with my project. In fact, I even tweeted:

later today, I’m going to say “this works because we will invent magic paper” in a class presentation. #futurism

Indeed, I used the word “Magic” multiple times to describe this interface. Overall, I enjoyed this style of presentation because I only had to present a radical idea and provide contextual clues that this sort of interaction could someday be possible without going into implementation details. I think my courage and earnest style was rewarded with an overall positive reception. At any rate, it felt really good doing that hand waving.

Make more things and show people

I am starting to get a little antsy, though. I’m not quite making a lot of unique things, yet. Sure, I’m keeping busy and I can definitely say I’m getting quite a lot accomplished. I feel on pace or ahead of pace in my overall “what am I doing here” position.

All the tools and opportunities are just sitting in front of me, but I’m realizing nobody’s going to say, “Ok. Start making amazing things.” I just have to pick something interesting and produce. It doesn’t have to be earth shattering or research qualtiy or even real. “Demo or die” as they say.

I’ve fallen into a pattern of tinkering on a few ideas and then not really showing anybody. Maybe part of it is fraud complex (“nobody here will think this is cool” or “this doesn’t have anything to do with what you should be working on right now”); part of it is not really understanding how sharing works in this academic context.

New students had a lecture last week about IP and patents, etc. The takeaway for me was: “I’m probably not going to invent something in an industry that demands patents. The most valuable thing I have, here, is the leverage and megaphone of being associated with MIT and the Media Lab. SO MAKE AMAZING THINGS AND THEN SCREAM LOUDLY ABOUT THE THINGS I MADE TO EVERYONE THAT WILL LISTEN.”

So that’s next.


Wondering

  • What is the simplest, minimal robot I can create that can express enormous amounts of emotion? Can it be produced inexpensively and efficiently? (kickstarter project, even?)

Tinkering

  • Working on a shadow puppet interaction for 99fridays (probably going to have to wait until November’s event)
  • Working on a Maya->Unity->Robot workflow
  • prepping for sponsor demos & lego trip

Building

  • Delivered presentation for MAS S62 summarizing Data Centric project proposal involving literacy tablets (in Ethiopia, etc)
  • Delivered first Tangible Media presentation about long term ideation with my concept, tinder.
  • Delivered series of plots for Cynthia to use in a TED-like talk about our literacy work
  • Pushed food cam button for the first time:

Learning

  • Data munging and techniques for dealing with super large data sets
  • Evaluating multiple data analysis frameworks (R, SAS, even Matlab)
  • Learning about expressing animation / emotive cues in robot models in physical objects <- a lot of playful potential here.

Other

  • Lauren and I snuck away to NYC for part of last week. Nobody really noticed or cared here. I’m starting to get the appeal of grad school.

  • On the other hand, I stayed way late one night here until 4am. Granted, it’s quiet, but I’d rather not make that a habit: