Thursday, March 25, 2010


When I was an undergraduate at MIT in the late 1970s, one of the most impressive people I knew was my roommate Walter.

Walter was a mechanical engineer, and knew an incredible amount of just-plain-practical stuff about how to make things work, from types of stainless steel to the ins and outs of convective cooling.

The rest of us vicariously enjoyed his entry in Woodie Flowers' design completion, the 2.70 contest (named for the number of the design course). The idea was to take a box of stuff--tongue depressors, rubber bands, and so forth--and turn it into a machine that would beat other students in a glorified "king-of-the-hill" like task. This was way before I heard the phrase KISS, "Keep It Simple, Stupid," but we all learned that successful designs took this minimalist idea as a core principle.

This sort of contest has been picked up by others, even bringing high-school teams into the game, for example in the FIRST competitions. It's a great way to inspire imaginative people in ways that go way beyond the ordinary classroom experience. And it's a hands-on demonstration of the creativity that underlies true design.

Walter also worked with Otto Piene, the artist who headed MIT's Center for Advanced Visual Studies. Among other things Walter helped sew enormous inflatable anemones for Piene's Centerbeam project on the mall in Washington, D.C., as well as designing and building beam-steering mechanisms for an early laser show.

I'd forgotten all of this until reporting my latest story for CACM on a new project from MIT, which brings together two teams. One group comes from the Department of Urban Studies and Planning, which is exploring ways that distributed technology can illuminate or improve urban life, such as tracking trash disposal or using cell phones to monitor commuting. The second group is from the "Aero and Astro" department, where researchers have been exploring autonomous vehicles for military and other applications.

The Flyfire project aims to do something even stranger: to use LED-bearing helicopters to make a giant display. Although there may be some practical need for such a display, the most compelling vision for now is to create giant public art projects, of the kind pioneered by Piene and others.

Maybe it will never be particularly useful. Maybe it will never even work. But these grand visions tap into something essential in the human spirit.

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