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Brains Unboxed

Bare wooden floors, and unplastered brick walls. Ceiling-high pot plants, and black leather sofas. Industrial light fittings hanging over open-plan work spaces, where flat screen computers sit on matt black worktops. Welcome to Media Lab Europe (MLE), where loft living meets cutting-edge research in the former Guinness hop store just to the west of Dublin city centre.

MLE is, says its acting director Kenneth Haase, "a long-term basic research lab that isn't based in an ivory tower." Its purpose, according to Research Fellow David Reitter, is to do "high-tech research for people ... not just for its own sake." And although this kind of research has a tendency to move toward academia, says Haase, that is a fate unlikely to befall the investigations going on at MLE. Launched through a 10-year agreement with the Irish government, MLE is based on the MIT Media Lab, a "very successful model for commercially engaged research" created by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he explains.

By inviting companies to join their 'club,' both the MIT Media Lab and the European newcomer offer industry "access to research in the making," says Principal Research Scientist Sile O'Modhrain. In return for their membership fees, companies such as Deutsche Telekom, Ericsson, Saab, Swatch, and the Lego Group get first dibs on intellectual property generated at either site. They are entitled to nonexclusive agreements in the first 2 years of an invention's life and exclusive deals thereafter.

The industry relationship "informs what we do [and] how we think," says Haase. And although industry partners have "no directive say" in the lines of research that are followed, "if a company came to MLE with an interesting problem that resonated with the research interests of the faculty and students, that problem would get worked on," he explains. Reitter, who is carrying out research for his PhD during his 2-year fellowship, confirms that he is "aware of industry," but does not feel pressured to develop products "that can be put to market in a short period."

'Creative' and 'passionate' are two words you hear a lot at MLE. In a place where traditional disciplinary boundaries are ignored, the researchers are as likely to be artists or toymakers as engineers or computer scientists. "Passion--something they care about," is one of the qualities that O'Modhrain looks for in researchers hoping to join the group she leads--Palpable Machines--which studies how humans interact with computers using different senses, particularly touch. She is, she says, in search of 'T shaped' people: "typically they have a deep skill set in some area" and a "broad set of other skills." Although being "curious, motivated, and open to learning and growing" is crucial, that specialised depth is also vital. It's "important that somebody has something to bring so they're starting out with a feeling of value," she asserts.


There are opportunities to join MLE for shorter or longer periods from undergraduate level onwards. And with plans for the lab to "grow by another factor of 2 or 3 over the next 5 years," according to Kenneth Haase, the range and extent of those opportunities are only likely to increase.

Research internships, offered to undergrads, allow groups at MLE to import "particular skill sets for short periods of time," says Sile O'Modhrain. Research interns include students hired under the European Undergraduate Research Opportunities Programme (EUROP), which provides opportunities for students seeking summer work, students seeking a work placement in a research lab, and recent graduates looking for a short-term internship.

Research fellows are graduates who are typically hired for 2 years. Although some people, like David Reitter, carry out PhD research during their fellowships, this is not the primary goal of many of the placements, says O'Modhrain. Rather the posts offer an opportunity for personal development, she suggests.

Research assistants, like Dipak Patel, are students enrolled in a higher degree programme at a European academic institution who carry out research at MLE and are co-supervised by an MLE principal researcher.

Research associates, like Brian Duffy, are often postdocs. They are associated with a particular research group at MLE, but pursue their own, more independent, line of inquiry.

Physical barriers are few--no one has an office. Instead signs hang from the ceiling to indicate where the workspaces of a particular group can be found. There's free exchange of people and ideas between Dublin and Boston, too. "We all have the chance to work over there," says Reitter, and collaborations between the two labs are assisted by the iCom, a 24/7 media link developed by Stefan Agamanolis, head of the Human Connectedness group. Unlike video conferencing, which requires a dedicated broadband connection and a formally arranged time slot, the iCom runs on the Internet and encourages informal as well as formal interactions between researchers in the two locations.

"We're interested in training interdisciplinarians," says Haase (see Opportunities box, above), and the most important part of that training is "just being here and being part of the research." Although the lab is "looking at devising more structured activities to encourage interdisciplinary interaction," he continues, the environment itself already seems to be having the desired effect. "I've had so many good ideas here," says Reitter.

Adopting a mode of working from arts and architecture and applying it to technology and engineering is all part of MLE's interdisciplinary experiment. Although most scientists know they must 'publish or perish,' at MLE the mantra is 'demo or die.' "Demos are not actually a product, more a part of a [research] method," explains Haase, and an investigative approach that has been transplanted to Ireland from the MIT Media Lab. The goal of the researchers is to "create things and use those things to ask questions, to see people interact with them," he continues (see Habitat box, below). Just as "an architect's model becomes a discussion piece," so demos are "pieces for dialogue around ... the creation of new technology," says O'Modhrain, who describes them as the "the external manifestations of thoughts." Some of the people who interact with the demos are industry partners, who are invited to a monthly Open House event.


Dipak Patel is something of a nomad. Currently on sabbatical leave from BTexact Technologies in Ipswich, UK, he's registered for a PhD at University College London. But he's doing his research in the Human Connectedness group at MLE in Dublin.

His project, Habitat, is inspired by his nomadic lifestyle. If you live far away from people you love, you want to feel connected to them, but there "aren't many good technologies for connectedness that aren't interrupting," he points out. For example, a telephone call, or even a text message, intrudes on what the object of your affections is currently doing; what you'd prefer is a more ongoing feeling for the flow of your loved one's daily life.

For his latest demo, Patel has built two networked coffee tables. For now they're side by side, but they could easily be half a world apart. When an object--a mug or book, say--is placed on one table, an image of that object appears on the second. Starting out small, the image gradually gets bigger the longer the actual object is on the first table. When the object is removed its image turns grey, then gradually fades away. Just by glancing at your own table, you can get an idea of the ways in which your child/parent/partner has been using theirs, and how recently.

MLE adheres strongly to its vision of "expanding human potential through invention," says Haase. This emphasis on 'human potential' is one element that differentiates MLE from its eponymous mother ship in Boston, he continues. Another difference, of course, is its physical separation from anything remotely resembling an ivory tower. "MLE has taken the model from MIT and transplanted it to Dublin, [but] with no connection to an academic institution," points out O'Modhrain. Thus, 2 years after its foundation, MLE is busy establishing collaborations with "a lot of academic institutions," describes Haase.

Being outside a formal academic environment means that one facet of the MLE's developing academic programme is "the notion of having very different sizes of courses," says Haase, since the "constraint" of a fixed pattern of semesters is absent. And although the MIT Media Lab's Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program is a "powerful way of bringing undergraduates into research labs," says O'Modhrain--particularly as the experience counts towards their degrees--"here we aren't in [the] position to give academic credit." Nonetheless MLE's equivalent scheme, EUROP (see Opportunities box, above), is open to undergraduates from across Europe--and they receive a stipend instead of credit toward their degrees.

Working at MLE is "different from university life," confirms Reitter. "Here people get thrown together from very different [disciplinary] backgrounds, but they came here on their own," he says, and so socialise outside of the lab. The result: "you end up working with friends." (See Vicarious Adrenaline box, below.)

Vicarious Adrenaline

When you work with friends you discover common interests, and in an environment like MLE, shared passions can turn into research projects. For Brian Duffy the hobby that he now takes to work is racing motorbikes.

Duffy, a research associate in MLE's MindGames group, is a robotics expert. He's working with colleagues from Palpable Machines on a project they call Vicarious Adrenaline. The aim is to let you experience the thrill of a motorcycle race from a much safer place. During his weekend races, Duffy and his bike are hooked up to a bunch of monitors which record data such as his heart rate and the forces on the bike.

The vicarious rider watches a video recording from the cyclist's perspective and hears the heartbeat of the real rider--oh, and the seat moves too. But according to Duffy this is far more than a glorified arcade game. "Subtlety is key," he says, and the result is a much closer link to the real experience than you'll ever have had before.

Also different from university life is the level of resources, says Reitter, who spent some time doing research at a start-up company in Berlin before joining MLE. "I was definitely spoiled," he says of his corporate life, making a return to a conventional academic environment unappealing. Fortunately MLE "rises to those high standards." He feels that he has "much better opportunities to attend conferences and generally get around" than he would have had at a local university. He doesn't have to "fight for funding," has top quality equipment, and "the best access to libraries possible."

It doesn't do to get too comfortable at MLE, however. "One of the goals is throughput," says O'Modhrain, so "nobody [including principal scientists] is on longer than a 3-year contract" (although these can be reviewed and renewed). "The idea is to keep fresh thought coming through the lab," she explains. When the time comes for her to move on, "following this act" might be tough, acknowledges O'Modhrain, but it will probably involve "taking little pieces and distributing [them] in other places," sowing the seeds of the Media Lab philosophy elsewhere.

One of Haase's ambitions is that MLE alumni should leave "more real-world aware, and commercially aware, in a way that would suit them much better to be creative in whatever organisation they join," he says. "I'd like them to come out interdisciplinarians, excited about the idea of, wherever they are next, reaching out beyond their department." But he also wants them "to feel like they had fun and had done work which everyone thought was cool." O'Modhrain, meanwhile, hopes that her students and colleagues take away "the ability to question" and "to view things from many different angles." But above all she believes they should have learned "to look for inspiration in unlikely places." A disused hop store, for instance?