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MIT Media Lab Launches Virtual RFID-Powered Blackboard

To offer visitors a means by which to learn about the 130 or so projects being pursued at the Media Lab at any given time, RFID-enabled Samsung plasma touch-screen displays were installed throughout the building.
By Mary Catherine O'Connor
The software associates and saves any information called up on the touch screen with that visitor's profile, so that at the end of that person's time at the lab, a digital map has been made that shows the history of where he or she went within the facility, as well as what information that individual accessed via the touch screens. What's more, whenever more than one person carrying a badge stands in front and within read range of any monitor, the names and photos of all badge-holders are displayed on the screen, as well as some information about those visitors, such as the companies for which they work, or research projects they've already read about at other monitors.

"The only thing you need to carry around is your badge," says Yael Maguire, a cofounder of ThingMagic, which helped the Media Lab develop the system, and which is no stranger to the lab. "You don't need to download some smart-phone apps or anything to collect the information." Maguire and his four ThingMagic cofounders are all MIT alumni, and studied at the Media Lab before launching their company 10 years ago. In fact, Nicholas Negroponte, the lab's chairman emeritus (as well as the founder and chairman of the One Laptop per Child nonprofit association) was an early funder of the company (see Cisco Backs ThingMagic).

Upon leaving the lab, a visitor can access these digital bread crumbs remotely by logging in to the Media Lab's Web site, using the login name and password he or she set up at the kiosk. And on each subsequent visit to the lab, any interactions that visitor has with the monitors will be added to the existing data, as long as he or she is carrying the RFID tag issued during that individual's initial visit.

"The idea is to make the lab as transparent and accessible as possible," Lippman states. The Media Lab wants to make the ideas being developed and researched at its facility "as accessible as the physical artifacts" in the building, he says, rather than keeping information locked up in information silos.

"We used to ask, 'What are computers good for in regular life?'" Lippman says. After the dawn of the Internet, he adds, people began spending an increasing amount of time in cyberspace, but no one had figured out a way for people in the same building to share information that was better than a blackboard. "Now, people want to live more in the real space, rather than in cyberspace, and this [RFID system] gives people a way to do that."

"If you think of Facebook or Twitter, this is like a microcosm of that," Maguire explains, "but one where the building itself is what is providing the information."

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