IMPETUS: Works from the MIT Media Lab

At the Ars Electronica Festival 2009

Thu 3. 9. 15:00

Thu 3. 9. – Tue 8. 9. 10:00 – 19:00

Campus, Kunstuniversität Hauptplatz

Curated by Hiroshi Ishii (US) & Amanda Parkes (US)
A cooperation of Ars Electronica, University of Art and Industrial Design Linz and MIT Media Lab/US.

Certainly we cannot hope to solve the problems facing us without a greater understanding of the modern world, based on the integration of knowledge. Humanists must be educated with a deep appreciation of modern science. Scientists and engineers must be steeped in humanistic learning. And all learning must be linked with a broad concern for the complex effects of technology on our evolving culture.

Jerome B. Wiesner (Co-founder, MIT Media Laboratory, 1915–1994)

The 2009 Ars Electronica Campus Exhibition features current work of the faculty and students from the MIT Media Lab in Cambridge MA. From its inception almost thirty years ago, the Media Lab has taken an unorthodox research approach to envisioning the impact of emerging technologies on everyday life—technologies that promise to fundamentally transform our most basic notions of human capabilities. The lab attracts designers, computer designers, engineers, artists, and scientists, divergent in background and practice. However, unifying the people of the lab is a particular kind of passion, momentum, drive—the IMPETUS—to create and innovate for change. The depth and breadth of the Media Lab’s research areas transcend traditional technology, design or art environments and the lab can be thought of as an ongoing experiment, both physical and intellectual, in facilitating innovation, collaboration and critique. It is an environment where inspiration arises from difference and where the driving force behind creation comes from an inherently transdisciplinary approach.

The MIT Media Lab consists of 30 different research groups including the diverse disciplines of interactivity, robotics, artificial intelligence, education, nanotechnology, music, neuroengineering, material science, visualization, social networking, urban infrastructure, fabrication, and political art all intermingling in joint spaces, courses and projects. Students at the Media Lab generally arrive with a particular area of expertise, but are encouraged to explore new domains to enrich and expand their perspective on their research. In many ways, time spent at the Media Lab becomes an education on the process of innovating in itself. The goal of the lab’s work is to develop technologies that empower people of all ages, from all walks of life, in all societies, to design and invent new possibilities for themselves and their communities. Unique to the lab’s structure is our pairing with industry sponsors who support the lab’s research in a shared intellectual property model and keep the lab connected to the real world issues of the corporate community and society at large.

The idea for the Media Lab came into being in 1980 by Professor Nicholas Negroponte and former MIT President and Science Advisor to President John F. Kennedy, Jerome Wiesner. The Lab grew out of the work of MIT’s Architecture Machine Group, and remains within MIT’s School of Architecture and Planning. The Media Lab opened the doors to its I. M. Pei-designed Wiesner Building in 1985, and in its first decade was at the vanguard of the technology that enabled the “digital revolution” and enhanced human expression: innovative research ranging from cognition and learning, to electronic music, to holography. In its second decade, the Lab literally took computing out of the box, embedding the bits of the digital realm with the atoms of our physical world. This led to expanded research in wearable computing, wireless “viral” communications, machines with common sense, new forms of artistic expression and innovative approaches to how children learn.

Now, in its third decade, the Media Lab continues to check traditional disciplines at the door. This fall, we will expand into a new building, a Fumihiko Maki-designed atelier style addition to our current space, where we will continue to move forward concept driven research, inventing—and reinventing—how humans experience, and can be aided by, technology.

The Campus exhibition at Ars Electronica features a sampling of current and recent work from the lab—an intersection of cutting edge technology with an appreciation for the power of design and aesthetics to metamorphize an interactive experience, and the desire to position work within a broader social infrastructure to better understand the effects of technology, for better or worse, on the fabric of society. Three subthemes have emerged for this exhibition—community, humanity and materiality—which broadly encompass the conceptual focus of our research and present a cross over between a humanist perspective so central to our approach and the engineering and science for which MIT is so famous.


The development of new media technologies has brought about a revolution in the way we communicate and share knowledge. In recent years the lab has focused on several systems that empower and democratize access to information and reformulate social infrastructure physically and virtually. Some of the systems feature novel methods of mapping information to physicality and temporality while others look at urban transportation and energy processes. Lab researchers have also developed physical and digital platforms that encourage creativity through ease of accessibility to knowledge, transforming educational methods for all ages. Through products and tools that scaffold the process of creation of technologies by amateurs, the lab has helped in fostering the DIY initiative in communities of open source and participatory design. Key to this initiative is the concept of collective intelligence, aggregating knowledge of a diverse community of experts, and allowing for the formation of virtual communities that were never before possible. IMPETUS presents projects that explore how digital technologies have changed our access to and interpretation of information, and in turn empowered the process of learning, making, doing and understanding.


Technology has created systems for human augmentation that allow us to expand our physical and sensory capabilities and we have grown accustomed to living in an environment where our digital devices function as an extension of ourselves, both in ability and perception. The design of technological systems with artificial intelligence pushes these boundaries further, where our devices also become a reflection of ourselves—we adapt to technology and in turn create technology that adapts to us. The notion of our relationship with technology is metamorphosizing as the boundary between technology as human augmentation or outside entity shifts, blurring the line between when technological systems become part of us, and where they remain an ‘other.’ Robotic creations appeal to responses deeply rooted in our human nature, creating a dialogue to persuade, calm, assist or delight, through varying states of anthropomorphized forms and actions, while a vanguard media production questions what it means to be human in the context of an increasingly digital world. Through varying investigative methods, the featured projects seek to challenge and pursue critical inquiry into understanding our own humanity and identity in the context of technology.


For all the new dimensions the virtual world has brought us, we still intuitively delight in the physical—the tactile, the graspable, the tangible, the material—allowing us to utilize all of our senses and our inherent bodily knowledge of the world around us. For over a decade, the Media Lab has been at the forefront of understanding and innovating on technology’s place within the built environment and the significance of physicality in our experience with digital systems. The idea of *Tangible Bits* was born at the Media Lab, seamlessly coupling the physical and digital world. In many ways, the Media Lab itself embodies the sense of the importance of physicality; it is a culture of learning by doing, a kinesthetic approach by which the physical output of endeavors can embody ideas beyond the imagination. In future visions of interactivity such as programmable matter and radical atoms, material science on the nanoscale begins to merge with concepts of interactivity, envisioning physical materials that are as malleable, programmable, and dynamic as pixels on a screen. Central to the notion of new materiality is also the innovation of fabrication processes that go along with creation, questioning how changing the process of making things also changes the things we make. For the lab’s designers, artists and scientists working on novel methods of combining computation and materiality, the challenge becomes how to expand our notion of the possibilities of the material world while creating experiences that remain familiar, comfortable and engaging.

Like everything at the MIT Media Lab, the works presented transcend any one category and show a fusion of the artists’ viewpoint, knowledge and personal motivations. Through IMPETUS, we invite you to experience and interpret the diversity and essence of our community.

See all projects of IMPETUS: Works from the MIT Media Lab

4 Responses to “IMPETUS: Works from the MIT Media Lab”

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