Cisco extends research investment in MIT

Von Matt Hamblen

Cisco Systems Inc. Wednesday announced a further investment in digital technology research at MIT.

Cisco Chief Technology Officer Charles Giancarlo and Nicholas Negroponte, chairman and co-founder of the MIT Media Lab, announced the expanded relationship at a news conference here. Neither MIT nor Cisco officials would say how much money Cisco is investing, or for how long. The company last invested in research at the school in 2000. That money went to the MIT Center for eBusiness, with Cisco being the lead sponsor of research into the relationship between IT spending and productivity.

Specifically, Cisco is sponsoring the MIT Media Lab"s Digital Life Consortium, and Cisco engineers will collaborate with the MIT Media Lab researchers across a wide range of disciplines, including studies of software agents, viral communications, integrated sensor networks, wearable computers, user interface design, object-oriented video and advanced digital expression, according to a statement from Cisco.

Cisco set aside about US$3.3 billion for research and development in its 2004 budget, and about the same amount in the current fiscal year. According to Giancarlo, the company plans to invest more money in university research, but spending in that area is a very small part of the $3.3 billion total for R&D.

MIT officials used Wednesday"s event to tout two current projects at the Media Lab, although Giancarlo said neither was specifically sponsored by Cisco. One of the projects is called Smart Architectural Surfaces and features technology developed by V. Michael Bove Jr., who is the head of the Media Lab"s Object-Based Media Group, along with a number of graduate students and others. Bove showed off about 15 "tiles" that are essentially video screens equipped with a wireless computer running Linux, a camera, a speaker, a microphone and sensors. The tiles can be grouped together, snapped into place and can show the movements of the person looking at it -- creating a framework for exploring how any group of smart devices could work together.

In the workplace, the tiles could be carried around by workers, much as laptops are today. When the workers meet in a conference room, for example, the tiles could be used to create a large videoconferencing system -- with data shared within the room and perhaps with co-workers in other locations, he said.

Giancarlo said the networking abilities of the tiles might be applicable to Cisco work.

The second demonstration focused on the Build Your Own Bag project, in which researchers developed small rectangles of fabric with velcro, sensors and microprocessors sewn in. The pieces could be attached to one another to make a handbag or shoulder bag that a person could carry.

Gauri Nanda, a research assistant at the Media Lab, said the sensors could be set to light up or emit an audible warning when an object like a set of keys is missing. "We"re moving to an environment where the devices manage themselves," Bove said.

Negroponte said mesh networks, in which individual devices such as cell phones are used in peer-to-peer fashion to improve network reliability, are another area of focus at MIT. In theory, such a network might not need to rely on cellular towers in a wireless system; the various phones could be left on at all times and work both as transceivers and as repeaters.

Negroponte says he thinks such mesh networks will become vital in Third World countries where wired telecommunications are rare and where established cellular providers are reluctant to build services.