I was lucky enough to attend one of the TEDx Boston 2011 Adventures last Thursday evening at the MIT Media Lab hosted by Associate Professor Ramesh Raskar. Raskar is in charge of the Camera Culture Group, one of the Media Lab's twenty-six component labs. We began with an introduction to the various projects the Camera Culture Group is involved in.
NETRA is an extremely inexpensive solution to a very expensive problem. A plastic column with an eyepiece is attached on top of a smartphone and is used to determine the user's required eyeglass prescription. A new version can now also detect cataracts. Considering that current medical equipment on the market cost in the thousands of dollars, a plastic add-on to a smartphone that costs two dollars is a godsend.
Short-term goals for NETRA include updating the form factor (moving away from the Pez dispenser shape), allowing a doctor to operate the smartphone in place of the patient, adding video games that can read how children's eyes look at the game (way cool!), and developing a two-eye "View Master" version.
An unexpected worry is that NETRA is too inexpensive! The developers must combat the perception that an inexpensive medical product must be one of poor quality. The Camera Culture Group is now working to create a revenue model around the product.
"We often don't set out to solve world problems," says Raskar. "We work on the solution, then go hunt for the problem." The Group prototypes very quickly and if the project doesn't seem worth spending more time on, they'll simply put in on the backburner and move on.
Other current Camera Culture Group projects include Femto-photography (using light rays to "look around corners"), Bokodes (microdot barcodes), and HR3D (glasses-free 3D displays).
Camera Culture lab
Raskar, a speaker in this year's TEDx Boston conference, jokingly described the majority of TED Talks as either "since I was a child" talks or "100 million people have this problem" talks. "I think if you poke, you'll find both those are wrong," says Raskar. "I was very poor as a child but what I do is not based on that." Although this may be true, Raskar has certainly found a way to connect fun, exploratory technologies with populations in great need.
Raskar's Idea Hexagon
The most interesting part of the talk was when Raskar described how exactly his group is able to innovate so quickly and so dynamically. He introduced us to his Idea Hexagon (see above). Starting clockwise with X+Y, these are the possible routes of innovation: combine your idea with another idea (e.g. nightvision and cars); take your idea to another dimension/field of study (e.g. nightvision and music performance); treat your idea as the solution and find all the problems it fixes (e.g. nightvision and seeing in the dark); add an adjective to your idea (e.g. nightvision and social media); do the exact opposite of your idea (e.g. dayvision); and, finally, treat your idea as the problem and find all the solutions (e.g. nightvision and solving depth perception).
Mood Meter Ping pong table fish respond to vibrations
Other aspects of innovating included asking Heilmeier's Questions; picking at least two areas out of ones that are fun, have an impact, and have not been researched; and also Ramesh's Strive for Five: before 5 teams are working on it, beyond 5 years of future thinking, within 5 layers of human impact, beyond a 5 minute description (not just combining A and B), and fusing 5+ areas of expertise.