Inside the MIT Media Lab
The renowned MIT Media Lab breaks boundaries and disciplines across a variety of unconventional research projects, actively promoting a unique and multidisciplinary culture at the center of technology, media and design. The lab is home to music research achievements such as Opera of the Future, Toronto Symphony project and music intelligence company The Echo Nest. Committed to looking beyond the obvious and to seeking answers to questions not yet asked, the institution seeks to radically improve the way people live, learn, and express themselves at work and play.
Professor Nicholas Negroponte and former MIT president Jerome Wiesener founded the Media Lab in 1980 with the vision to combine a digital future with a new style of creative invention. Visitors and sponsors came to see not only what the lab did but also how they did it. It emphasizes current market needs less than imagination about creative expression in the future.
In 1985 this exciting new paradigm for research developed one of the most widely used software synthesis systems today—CSound. The Lab frequently developed concepts that were far ahead of the curve, such as online sociable media long before Facebook or Twitter, predicting society’s technological landscape years in advance.
Over the next decade, the Media Lab developed systems that allowed 3D interaction with virtual creatures along with such breakthroughs as NetSound, a program capable of delivering an entire Beethoven symphony over the Internet in approximately 10 seconds. In the meantime, the digital revolution enhanced human expression and innovative research, from holography to electronic music.
Today, in it’s third decade the expanded and renovated $120 million, six-story Media Lab continues to offer an encouraging environment for innovation through research, creativity, and discovery. Operating on a $35-million annual budget and backed by some of the world’s leading corporations including Google, Bank of America, and Panasonic, the Media Lab is able to bring together researchers and sponsorship across a vast range of disciplines in an a joint effort to transform society.
Opera of the Future
The Opera of the Future group at the Media Lab examines how musical composition, performance, and instrumentation can lead to new forms of expression, learning, and health. Through the invention of musical instruments that understand, interpret and map the artistic intentions of the performer, this project seeks to enhance music as performance art and develop its transformative power as counterpoint into our everyday lives.
The group is led by professor Tod Machover, a well-known composer. Tod is the inventor as well of Hyperinstruments, a technology that uses smart computers to augment virtuosity and used by Yo-Yo Ma, Prince, and Peter Gabriel. Tod has integrated this technology into one of the group’s most recent projects, Death and the Powers. This one-act opera features an ensemble of Hyperinstruments, an animatronic stage that “comes alive” as the opera’s main character, together with an army of performing robots.
As more and more examples of crowd-sourced and interactive music emerge, Opera of the Future has created a new work for symphony orchestra in collaboration with the entire city of Toronto. Toronto Symphony, based on real world community building activities, was created with the goal of bringing together people across a diverse platform of age, experience, and musical background. The collaboration process involved thousands of Torontonians who used Media Scores, Constellation web music apps (developed at the MIT Media Lab specifically for this project), and the Lab’s Hyperscore graphic composing software that allows anyone to create original material or contribute to the already existing score.
It is technology like this that is breaking ground across music performance and composition. Tod Machover and his team have also created The Music Toys at the MIT Media Club, aimed at giving young children the creative tools necessary to innovate through music in new ways.
The Echo Nest
Tristan Jehan and Brian Whitman, founders of music intelligence company The Echo Nest first met as Ph.D candidates at MIT’s Media lab. Jehan’s research was primarily focused on teaching computers how to capture sonic elements of music while Whitman’s studied its cultural and social components. In combining both approaches, they formed one of the world’s most important digital music companies that, nevertheless, goes under the radar.
Research began in 2005 when they created a vast database—a musical brain—based on individuals’ music interests. Similar to Pandora but on a much larger scale, The Echo Nest markets its data to popular music services, custom playlists curators, and radio stations. In fact, the company powers music applications for MTV, The BBC, Warner Music Group, and about 7,000 independent app developers.
The Echo Nest uses two types of technology: A computer program that analyzes songs fundamental elements, i.e. tempo and key, and a search system that scans the web collecting information on what people are posting, tweeting, or commenting about with regards to songs. This data is then combined, giving every track a digital fingerprint containing its musical and cultural attribution and storing it in a database referred to as “the knowledge.” This library of information contains 34 million tracks by more than 2 million artists.
In October 2010, the Somerville, MA startup received $7 million in venture financing from Matrix Partners and Commonwealth Capital Ventures. In July of 2012, The Echo Nest received an additional $17.3 million in Series D venture financing from Matrix Partners, CCV, Norwest Venture Partners and three co-founders of the MIT Media Lab. To date, the company has received over $25.6 million in funding as it continues its expansion in sales and marketing.
The Echo Nest’s massive database of music intelligence is not the only key component to its success. The venture has opened up a simple API documentation site for developers to use, which has lead to over 150 music applications integrating the companies music search, discovery and analytics information into their programs. Through allowing open access of information, the company has transformed would be competitors into long term, reliable customers.
The MIT Media Lab and The Echo Nest are both heavily involved in “Hack Days” which are aimed at giving developers and entrepreneurs free access to technology for non-commercial experimentation. Just recently, the Media Lab hosted its first annual festival and hackathon exploring the intersection of art, technology, and entrepreneurship.
The event brought together students from MIT, Harvard, and Berklee College of Music to hear from entrepreneurial thinkers in all the creative industries, explore demos from early-stage music startups, experience tech-enabled live performances, and produce technology based projects related to art and entertainment.
The event featured keynote speakers Panos Panay, founder and CEO of Sonicbids, Jim Lucchese, CEO of The Echo Nest, Kristen Bender, Senior Product Manager of Music at Sonos, and Ron Ubaldo, Berklee Alumnus and Director of Partnerships at YouTube Music.
The MIT Media Lab, after more than 25 years of research, is committed to the principle that most imaginative work comes from antidisciplinary culture. With a dedicated group of passionate researchers, the Lab is generating the formula and paving the future of arts, technology and entrepreneurship.
By William Kiendl
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