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Best of Portland 2009

Inventing the Future

At MIT's fabled Media Lab, some will change the world with robots and computers, others with . . . Wii guitars
By ABIGAIL JONES  |  May 13, 2009

VIDEO: Rob Morris of Vivian Darkbloom plays a Wii guitar solo live at Great Scott

Rob Morris stands on stage at T.T. the Bear's Place, tilting his guitar higher and higher until the notes soar. A guitarist for the indie-pop Cambridge band Vivian Darkbloom, he writhes and twists in histrionic rock form in front of the sizable crowd, skipping octaves, bending pitches, casting vibrato — hell, he's producing sounds you didn't even know were sounds.

Has Boston found the new Eric Clapton? A shimmying, face-contorting successor to Yngwie Malmsteen?

Not exactly.

Morris is actually a second-year master's student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab. And the axe he's holding? It's a Wii guitar — that Morris built himself.

He's just one of the Media Lab's many mad scientists who use their intellectual bona fides to add a touch of ingenuity to the mundane. Together, they make up a sort of fifth column of humanity inside MIT's cold, robotic halls — nerdy types who dream up not just the latest in gadgets and gizmos, but ways in which the use of those technologies can better serve our needs.

Founded in 1980 and now backed by a $30 million annual budget provided mostly by large companies, such as Bank of America, Hearst Corporation, and Google, the Media Lab has generally made headlines for two types of activity: creative lunacy and startling effectiveness.

You may have heard of the eccentrics who wander around with electronic devices taped to their bodies, measuring not just their locations but also their moods and activities? Some of those Media Lab students invented super-high-resolution screens that can attach to glasses (soldiers on the battlefield use this technology to "see" by way of robotic cameras), and may one day make it possible to view TV or e-mail in contact lenses. Even Guitar Hero is Media Lab tech.

While technically a graduate-school program for master's of science and PhD students based at MIT's School of Architecture + Planning, really the Media Lab is a place where its 40-plus faculty members and 120-odd students come up with wild-eyed questions and then combine technology, multimedia, and a heavy dose of wing-nut creativity to make their high-tech dreams come true.

Some of the school's innovations have been truly world-changing, like that of Nicholas Negroponte, a former director of the Media Lab. He left the post to pursue an idea he devised while at MIT, the One Laptop per Child program, which gives students in developing countries durable $199 laptops and access to the Internet — and along with it, previously unforeseen educational opportunities. The best example in the public's attention right now, the E Ink text-display system used in Amazon's Kindle electronic reader, which was initially devised at the Media Lab, is so easy on the eyes and light on energy use, some are predicting it will redefine newspapers, magazines, and society itself.

But for all the fanfare that these inventions have received, quirkier, lesser-known projects have been unfolding north across the river in recent years. As all scientists will tell you, the failures can be just as important as the successes. And even the crazy, possibly frivolous side projects that students pursue outside of school have the potential to tell us something about how we think, and to change the way we live — even if nobody knows how, at least not yet.

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"

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  Topics: Lifestyle Features , Abigail Jones, Consumer Electronics, Culture and Lifestyle,  More more >
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