By Monica Orta
By Monica Orta
Each summer, we have the pleasure of participating in the MIT Summer Research Program (MSRP). MSRP is MIT’s flagship graduate recruitment program. It gives us the opportunity to work with undergraduates from around the country and introduce them to life at the Lab. The program goes a long way toward giving participants a glimpse into what graduate school would be like here, and allows us to know potential applicants better. Our six interns this summer engaged in meaningful work and share their experiences below.
This summer I worked on a project called Mobile Mediated Atmospheres with Nan Zhao in the Responsive Environments group. Mobile Mediated Atmospheres are systems that digitally control characteristics of the ambient environment using sound, lighting, and video projection to affect cognitive performance, behavior, and physiology. Through this project, I wanted to develop a deeper understanding of how these factors affect an individual’s experience. Working under Nan Zhao was such a great experience since this was one of the projects that inspired me to work at the Media Lab.
I used thermal cameras as a contact-free method to estimate an individual’s cognitive load in response to changes in the environment. Prior research has shown that changes in forehead and nose temperature correlate with changes in cognitive load. To evaluate this approach, we gathered thermal images of individuals performing creative and stressful tasks, which I processed using the OpenCV and OpenFace libraries to retrieve important facial points. I then took the average temperature around regions on the forehead and nose, and analyzed the temperature data in MATLAB. From our small sample size we were able to observe changes in cognitive load under different conditions: a larger study will provide a richer data set. You can see the research poster on my personal website.
I couldn’t have asked for a better group to work with!
What I appreciated the most about my group was the diversity of personalities, ideas, projects, languages, and experiences. On one day I could be planting sensor nodes in Plymouth, Massachusetts, at Tidmarsh, and on another day I’d be conducting experiments in the group’s Lighting Lab. My research supervisor was a great teacher throughout the internship, guiding me along the steps required to complete the project. I expected a really cool lab with all types of tools and hardware needed to prototype anything imaginable. Something I didn’t expect was the diversity in projects, ranging from sensor networks for wetlands, to systems that transform environments, to reconfigurable structures designed for space.
Little did I know three years ago when I first discovered the Media Lab that I would have the opportunity to conduct research here for a summer. I’ve been able to learn from the people that have inspired me to design at the intersection of engineering, science, and the arts. Being here gives you the time and space to express your artistic side through projects, as well as through the conversations you have with other amazing Media Labbers.
Of course you can’t forget about the perks like unlimited coffee and daily free food at FoodCam. During the FIFA World Cup, it was an intense experience being with others who support the opposing team watching the game on a huge screen. Towards the end of the internship the MIT Summer Research Interns also had a chance to meet and ask advice from Joi Ito. Meeting with the director of the Media Lab was an experience in itself, but the advice we got out of the meetup was most helpful as we navigate through the transition of becoming leaders in our fields.
I had the amazing opportunity to work in the Personal Robots group on exploring electrodermal activity (EDA) as a means of detecting engagement in child-robot learning interactions. On a larger scale, this project involved analysis of EDA signals recorded from storytelling interactions between Tega (a social robot) and children. More specifically, my project investigates whether question-asking can be used as an effective way of getting a child’s attention back.
The Personal Robots group was a joy to work with. I had the amazing opportunity to be mentored and supervised by Cynthia Breazeal and Hae Won Park, whose dedication to my success was present from the first day I stepped into the lab. Our weekly meetings brought an exciting and eclectic environment filled with research presentations, volunteer opportunities, and an exchange of ideas. To the graduate students doing groundbreaking work in their respective fields, UROP students bringing new perspectives and ideas to the lab, and Polly the lab mom, thank you for for making me a member of the team.
…an academic setting should not only focus on the research it does, but also take great care to make the environment welcoming to all participants.
Working in the Media Lab this summer has given me a renewed lens of what research can be. From eagerly waiting to get a Slack notification for the FoodCam to attending events at the Media Lab, it has shown me that an academic setting should not only focus on the research it does, but also take great care to make the environment welcoming to all participants. Amanda and Monica in the Media Lab office were also instrumental in my success. From organizing breakfasts and research presentation practice sessions to showering the interns with Media Lab swag, they both were intentional in every interaction and cheering for us along the way.
Thank you to the Media Lab, MIT Summer Research Program, and MIT for this life-changing experience.
…in reality, the project chose me.
We created a wearable camera with facial recognition and audio feedback. I had applied to Fluid Interfaces because I was interested in working in a combination of immersive media and brain-computer interface. I stumbled upon this project, which was outside what I understood to be my comfort zone, so in reality, the project chose me. The wearable camera uses machine learning and computer vision to detect and recognize faces, and once it recognizes a face it’s able to feed the name of the person back to the user. I worked on the hardware and design of the camera, and tried my hand at a little of the software. Throughout the summer, I prototyped different wearable camera designs and tested them to evaluate how a user would interact with them. Additionally, I ran surveys to further understand general perception of memory and wearables. The results from this survey also had an impact on the design process. The designs went from a little box with a camera and a neural chip to a modular flexible camera and a clip-on neural chip. We hope to eliminate the clip-on and have all the computing and battery on device in the near future.
Working with my research group was fun and challenging. Most of the time I was working on a team with a UROP and two visiting students. Since I was working on design, it was important for me to know what everyone else on the team was doing in order to make a product that aligned with our goals—it was a little weird in the beginning, but soon we all clicked and became a team. It wasn’t the experience I was expecting, it was better! I met awesome people and learned awesome new skills with them.
At first the Media Lab was overwhelming, getting used to the culture and the people. But soon I was adopted into the culture as if we were family. Around my lab I was always meeting the people who made the projects that got me interested in the Media Lab. I participated in studies, attended presentations, went to doctoral dissertations, watched FIFA World Cup games with people from around the world (watching FIFA games with my advisor Pattie Maes was almost fun, but Belgium always beat all the teams I was rooting for), hunted for free food from the FoodCam, helped prepare research studies, travelled Boston with labmates, and even participated in a expo for children where they were able to play around with brain computer interface to move a ball. And that was only the beginning! So at the end, I can say that I completed my goal, I lived the Media Lab experience. And looking forward to reliving it!
The 8KLibrary is a digital interface for analog libraries. I spent this summer trying to recreate the experience of exploring an open-stack public library, using an 8K screen rather than a building. The user can move through the space with the WASD keys, and reach out to grab any book off of the shelf. The space bar opens books which the user is holding, and the user can keep those books open on the side of their screen while they continue to explore.
A lot of the content we interact with right now is suggested to us based on our previous choices. This tends to reinforce people's existing biases. Open-stack libraries contain fully non-targeted content, and allow for totally serendipitous interactions with unfamiliar content.
The project was inspired by my own experience growing up. My family couldn’t afford Internet or cable for long stretches at a time, and my local public library became my main resource for growing as a person and learning about the world. I was really lucky to grow up in a community with a beautiful and accessible public library. I’m excited about this project’s potential to bring an abridged version of that experience to communities which can’t necessarily afford full libraries close to every home. In particular, I think about this project in the context of its potential implementation in rural America.
Coming into Object-Based Media, I knew that it was a deep reservoir of that iconic Media Lab quirkiness…
Coming into Object-Based Media, I knew that it was a deep reservoir of that iconic Media Lab quirkiness, but I hadn’t expected just how fun and kind my labmates would be. My supervisor, Pedro Colon-Hernandez, has invested so much time to help me through the technical challenges of this project, and other members of the group have also brought me an enormous number of suggestions and ideas, and generally made me feel extremely welcome. My labmates introduced me to their community not just as a peer, but as a person whom they truly wanted to get to know. I’ve been invited to join the softball team, make art with RC boats, and binge-watch The Bachelorette. That kind of closeness has made it much easier to ask questions that I feel like I should already know the answer to, and generally work more closely and efficiently with everyone.
What’s most exciting to me about the Media Lab is the incredible amount of academic freedom it offers. The Media Lab’s willingness to try imaginative solutions to problems, and to give its researchers a great deal of freedom to try new things creates a space which produces truly innovative work. I’ve been continually surprised at the amount of time that my fellow Labbers have taken to tell me about their ideas, and how respectful they’ve been of my own. And as an undergrad, it’s been incredibly exciting to see people so excited to talk about my research.
This summer I worked on a project about predicting the spread of an invasive plant on a lake in Benin. A local company, Green Keeper Africa, developed a method to turn water hyacinth into a material that absorbs oil-based waste. They are interested in using engineering methods to detect and predict where water hyacinth will grow, so I investigated how a low-cost sensor network could collect information about water characteristics. I also used agent-based modeling to demonstrate how human decisions are affected by awareness of water hyacinth. I worked on the initial stages of both projects, figuring out an ideal structure and creating the initial prototypes that can be demonstrated to the company.
I truly felt integrated into the Space Enabled team. Even though I was only there for the summer, I felt just as valued as every other member of the team through our group meetings, outings, and calls with collaborators. My advisors, Danielle Wood and Javier Stober, were very accessible and caring. I had the opportunity to grow both my engineering skills and perspectives about future goals, and I really appreciated the focus on the eventual impact of my work. I have made such wonderful friends among my labmates, and learned from everyone on the team.
I really appreciate the interdisciplinary mindset at the Media Lab, and how we are encouraged to think broadly about the impact of our work.
During my time here, I’ve had access to so many diverse talks and more exposure to new types of projects, which has helped to expand my horizons for the types of projects I would like to work on myself in the future. I’ve also really enjoyed talking to so many people at the Lab with fascinating perspectives, who kindly took time to meet with me. The environment of the Lab has been really friendly and innovative, and I’ve been very fortunate to spend time here.
I have always been interested in space and the benefits that people can gain from exploring it. For most of my life, I grew up between the US and Sudan, and it seems fitting that you can view both so readily with just one pass of a satellite. I was really happy to work this summer in the Space Enabled group, where our mission is to advance justice in Earth’s complex systems using designs enabled by space. In my project, I worked on detecting and mapping an invasive plant species (water hyacinth) in West Africa from space by using data from earth-observing satellites. I did the satellite data analysis for the project using readings from different wavelength bands of light and also built a model to predict where the plant would spread in the near future. This helps the local Beninese company that we collaborated with, Green Keeper Africa, which harvests the plant to make an oil-absorbing fiber. It also benefits the community by reducing the amount of water hyacinth present, thereby reducing the blockage to boat traffic and breeding grounds for mosquitoes that the plant creates.
It has been a joy to work in Space Enabled this summer. It was a great learning experience and also a privilege to work with people who shared a dedication to justice and equity. Integrating into the Space Enabled team was a welcoming experience, and I enjoyed the spirit of collaboration and opportunity to connect with partners from different areas of the world.
From the open-concept building to the diverse set of projects, the Media Lab truly is an antidisciplinary space.
It is a wonderful place for people like me who believe in the interconnectedness of different fields. I love being able to solve problems with an open mind and toolkit. Thank you to Lab Director Joi Ito for taking the time to meet with us and to other community members for their time and guidance.
Also, I want to thank the MIT Summer Research Program (MSRP) for doing such important work to make opportunities like these accessible to people of different backgrounds and experiences. I hope to continue getting young, talented students involved in great projects and connected to helpful resources.
Simonson, Aubrey and Pattie Maes. “Increasing Embodiment for Desktop-Based Participants in Mixed Desktop and Immersive Collaborative Virtual Environments.” (May 7, 2020).