If computers as we know them disappear, what will future computers look like? The Media Lab is developing some intriguing possibilities to take computers out of the box. They include Gandolf, a character that interacts with the user; a smart desk that helps the user; and a smart camera that can film a TV show without an operator. Host Alan Alda shows how the smart camera works when he hosts a cooking show to demonstrate one of his favorite recipes.
Activity 1: Designing the Future, Bit by Bit
Activity 2: What's in a Dot? Computer Imaging Games
For Further Thought
ACTIVITY 1: DESIGNING THE FUTURE, BIT BY BIT
Apply principles and concepts from the research projects at the MIT Media Lab to alternative designs.
In this episode of Frontiers, you see a preview of how scientists at the MIT Media Lab are inventing the future. Projects like smart rooms, wearable computers, intelligent agents and the Brain Opera may contain the seeds of future innovations that will force us to make a paradigm shift in the way we think about computers today.
Using some of the concepts explored in "Inventing the Future," here's a chance to design your own vision of tomorrow. Brainstorm a computer application or an invention that will make life safer, easier, healthier or simply more fun. Include a drawing of your invention and a brief description. You may want to work with a partner or in small groups. You can use some of the suggested applications below, or come up with your own ideas.
Here are some questions to focus your creative thinking on:
- What is the purpose of your invention?
- In what ways would it help people?
- How would you market it?
DESIGN A SMART HOUSE
A smart house might be made up of many smart rooms. The smart rooms at MIT use cameras, microphones and other sensors; the rooms in your house need not be limited to this hardware.
MAKE A THING THAT THINKS
In this project, scientists want to move away from designing the computer as a passive box on your desk by adding intelligence to objects or appliances. Choose an everyday object and make it "smarter." How will it interact with the user? How will it be helpful?
BUILD YOUR DREAM MACHINE
Use any of the concepts seen on Frontiers, from wearable computers to autonomous agents, to create your own personal assistant in the form of a machine or appliance or . . . (use your imagination!).
INVENT A SMART CAR
Think about the car you'd like to be driving in the next century. If you could select or invent any features for this vehicle, what would they be? Describe the interior and exterior.
DID YOU KNOW?
"Early in the next millennium your right and left cuff links or earrings may communicate with each other by low-orbiting satellites and have more computer power than your present PC. Your telephone won't ring indiscriminately; it will receive, sort and perhaps respond to your incoming calls like a well-trained English butler." -- from Being Digital by Nicholas Negroponte
ACTIVITY 2: WHAT'S IN A DOT? COMPUTER IMAGING GAMES
Use a magnifying glass to examine images on a television or computer screen. You'll notice that these graphics are composed of individual dots or pixels. (You can get a similar effect by looking at images in a magazine.) In order to render these images, microprocessors must approximate them as collections of dots or lines positioned on a grid. It's not as smooth as a photograph, but it's clear enough to tell a visual story.
Images on a computer screen are produced by one of two modes -- a vector (lines) or raster-type display (dots). In a vector display, an electron beam creates a straight line between two points, making a line drawing. In the raster, or television-type display, the electron beam aims for pixels near lines traced by a horizontal scanner to form the picture. Raster graphics have become the accepted mode of operation.
- magnifying glass
- graph paper
Students will play drawing games to learn about how computers generate images that are recognizable to humans.
A. DRAWING WITH DOTS GAME
Divide into teams. One student from team A goes to the board with an image in mind. She draws the image with dots, using one dot at a time. She makes a dot every five or ten seconds. The first person on team B to guess what she is drawing wins. Try adding new rules to see how they affect the game. Limit the category to a narrow topic, such as animals, letters, playing card suits, etc.
B. GRAPHING GAME
- 1. Divide into pairs. On a piece of graph paper with a fine grid, label coordinate axes and draw an object near the origin. Don't reveal it to your partner.
- 2. Plot points on the coordinate intersections that fall closest to the object. No points can be between lines; you are "forcing" the dots to specific coordinate points.
- 3. Make a table of X,Y coordinates.
- 4. Give just your table of coordinates to your partner. Have him/her plot the points on a fresh piece of graph paper and try to identify the object.
What you have just done modeled the traditional raster, or television-type, display used by computer monitors. The dots represent computer pixels. A typical 15-inch color computer monitor renders images in red, green and blue signals over a resolution of 640 x 480 pixels; each dot is only a quarter of a millimeter in size. That means a single image can have more than a quarter-million dots! Imagine all the ones and zeros representing these dots in the binary language of the processor.
- 1. How does this suggest to you that computers:
a. view and interpret images?
b. produce graphics on paper and on screen?
- 2. How does the Drawing with Dots game change when you limit it to specific categories?
- 3. How does using fixed coordinate points (as used in the Graphing Game) affect your ability to recognize an image?
- 4. Considering your answers, what kinds of challenges and limitations do computer engineers and programmers face in designing their products?
- 5. Why do you think it might be harder for a computer to recognize faces than to read text?
These activities were developed by Marc Rosner, science teacher at Port Chester Middle School, Port Chester, N.Y. Rosner is also a science education consultant and writer.
FOR FURTHER THOUGHT
See if you can find out more about raster-type and vector-type images. Based on what you know, which system would work better for a computer that has to resize graphics by scaling them up or down by a certain percentage?
Find examples of recent movies or TV commercials that use morphing or other special effects. If you have morphing software, try some experiments.