Inventing the Future

By ABIGAIL JONES  |  May 13, 2009

Take that guy on stage.

While Morris's new Wii guitar is, at heart, a peculiar personal endeavor, it nevertheless uses the mechanical medium of technology to make a profoundly human connection. Much more than enhancing a club gig, the Wii guitar's true significance is the unknown technology into which it might one day morph.

"Guitar players . . . move with their instruments . . . to express certain emotions or intensities," explains Morris, whose primary work at MIT involves creating video games that help autistic children overcome their fears, and whose band has recently caught the attention of CMJ,, and WFNX's New England Product. "So, why not make a gesture translate into something meaningful in the actual sound?"

That's exactly what his Wii guitar does.

Sure, the Gibson Dark Fire may look like many other regular electric models, but that small Wiimote attached to the horn of Morris's guitar communicates with a computer, via a software program that he also wrote. Each time Morris presses a button, the software recognizes which effect he's triggering, and lets him change the sound by altering the instrument's position. Air guitarists, rejoice!

These days, Morris is also working on a Wii microphone that, much like his guitar, alters a singer's voice depending on how he holds, swings, or dips the mic. It may not spark a musical revolution, but it could revolutionize, say, karaoke. His latest "pet project" is "Cat Scratch Hero," a musical instrument for cats. Hey, not everything a genius does sounds smart from the get-go.

VIDEO: "The Hi-Tech Magic of Seth Raphael"

Protest art
Inside the I.M. Pei–designed Wiesner Building — a sleek, tile-like creation off Memorial Drive — the fourth floor alone of the Media Lab overflows with paraphernalia. A bright red British phone booth stands out among the many offices and work areas packed into the sprawling space; colorful lanterns hang from the ceilings; stuffed animals are perched on desks.

Students often arrive here with an arsenal of seemingly disparate interests and a singular question on their minds. "What's cool that we can't do now, that we want to do in the future?", in the words of Seth Raphael, a 2007 graduate who's made a career out of applying magic to business and technology.

For Nadeem Mazen, a second-year student in the Media Lab's biological-engineering program, the answer is to use his high-tech, socially conscious art to promote discussions about religion, politics, and society.

When I meet the 25-year-old, curly-haired jack-of-all-trades, he's pacing between the embryonic ideas and dying projects that crowd the workshop at his office in South Boston, where he develops school-related side projects. All around us are raw materials, tools (both small and large, some intimidating), decorative backpacks — plus a handful of laser-cut canvases, part of a collection called The Near East: the Muslim World's Original Melting Pot, which was exhibited at the New England Conservatory of Music in March.

In each one, colorful graphics form the background for intricate Arabic calligraphy that Mazen makes with a laser cutter. The calligraphy communicates hadith qudsi, the sayings of God in the prophet Mohammed's own words.

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