The Names of MIT Media Lab: How to Describe an Innovation


There is nothing else quite like MIT Media Lab. Their mission to “invent a better future” has given us a better present. It’s Media Lab’s research and development that led to the Kindle and Nook, Rock Band and One Laptop Per Child.

While their innovative projects receive and deserve recognition, MIT Media Lab’s innovative project naming also warrants study and praise. The minds of the Media Lab seem to know as much about how to innovate as how to name innovations. 

In Describe Different, I wrote that it’s rarely easy to develop an obvious description for a product hitherto not obvious. The best practice of creating descriptors for innovations requires using words people are familiar with, but combining them in an original way. In a sense, it’s the very essence of creativity itself: combining old things in new ways.

What’s an innovative product descriptor? As an example, a new camera launched last year called the Lytro light field camera. In this case, light field camera is the innovation’s descriptor. Here’s a brief post about my work naming the Lytro. 

When it comes to naming new — really new — products, we can learn a lot from MIT Media Labs. Here are some instructive examples:

“...Systems that blur the boundary between urban lighting and digital displays in public spaces. These systems consist of liberated pixels, which are not confined to rigid frames as are typical urban screens. Liberated pixels can be applied to existing horizontal and vertical surfaces in any configuration, and communicate with each other to enable a different repertoire of lighting and display patterns. We have developed Urban Pixels a wireless infrastructure for liberated pixels.”

Wonderfully original yet self-explanatory, liberated pixels isn’t just a name, it’s a frame. It implies that other pixels are not liberated but are “an oppressed population” confined to the limited dimensions of a screen. Pixels is meant loosely, a metaphor for any point of light that could be illuminated at will in the future photopia the researchers envision. Liberated pixels demonstrates that a name can be distantly metaphoric — literally speaking, the light is neither liberated nor pixels — yet proximate enough to be descriptive. Bonus points for extending the pixels theme with urban pixels to describe the enabling infrastructure.  

“Air Mobs is a community-based P2P cross-operator WiFi tethering market.” 

Air refers to wi-fi — a creative yet familiar application of the word (cf. Apple’s AirPort and AirPlay). Mobs refers to groups of people, here communities and markets. Although mobs can be threatening and unruly, when used in a name, mobs casts off its dark sheen and becomes a playful label for a boisterous crowd. You can read more about the “positivity principle” — the phenomenon that negative words are perceived positively when they appear in a name — in the article, Red Flags and Red Herrings.  

”Storied Navigation is a novel approach to constructing a story based on a collection of digital video and audio. Media sequences are tagged with free-text annotations and stored as a collection. The system can then suggest media based on the context of the story.”

Storied Navigation is a new kind of storytelling named anew. The name’s focus is on the process of navigation (i.e. laying out a plot based on photos and videos) and bringing stories (i.e. annotations) into that process. The name belies the project’s reason for being: Until now, media-based stories have been piecemeal, a patchwork of disparate and disjointed moments that do not tie together into a seamless narrative. With Storied Navigation, a journey through media artifacts is no longer staccato, aimless wandering, but coherent and unified by a purpose: a story. In a fun twist, the word “storied” is not used as it is typically meant (legendary), but more literally yet novelly used to mean imbued with stories.

“...the goal of designing expanded musical instruments, using technology to give extra power and finesse to virtuosic performers. Such hyperinstruments were designed to augment guitars and keyboards, percussion and strings, and even conducting....The research focus of all this work is on designing computer systems (sensors, signal processing, and software) that measure and interpret human expression and feeling, as well as on exploring the appropriate modalities and innovative content of interactive art and entertainment environments. We have also expanded the hyperinstrument environment to include gestural and intuitive control of visual media.”
 Hyperinstruments.png
Hyperinstruments is a successful coined descriptor, denoting musical instruments that are beyond in some way. Hyper- brings many useful meanings: over, above, beyond, exceeding. All are relevant. This descriptor demonstrates that by taking a word that is functionally grounded, it can be augmented with a prefix to shape its meaning. Such a technique could be applied to the same root to derive non-existent neologisms (and innovations) such as meta-instruments (instruments that work beyond the instruments themselves), nano-instruments (the world’s smallest violin), mega-instruments (what Christo would play), auto-instruments (self-playing instruments, like player pianos and computers), bio-instruments (the body as music maker), and hydro-instruments (those whose sound comes from water).

Cool!

“In essence, it is a 3D printer for food.”
A few noteworthy things on this one. First, they could have called this 3D Food Printer, but they didn’t, at least not in the project description. I hope that in describing a device, it is called the 3D Food Printer because it’s bang-on. Second, Digital Gastronomy is the perfect description of the practice or art of creating food using digital technology. Computer-generated cake art would fall under Digital Gastronomy, as would the 3D Food Printer. Finally, there’s a coy proper name in Cornucopia. It suggests not only abundance, but also CORN!

“EyeRing is a wearable intuitive interface that allows a person to point at an object to see or hear more information about it.”

EyeRing is a solid, descriptive name. I like that it’s an analog to earring, which is not a ring that hears (though: cool) but one you put on your ears. EyeRing is not the only descriptor that might have been for this project: Information Ring, Vision Ring, Digital Ring, Sense Ring, and Ring of Knowledge would be equally descriptive, albeit longer. 

“Watt Watcher is a project that provides in-place feedback on aggregate energy use per device in a format that is easy to understand and intuitively compare.”

Clarity and alliteration: Two points!

“Audio spotlight can target sound very specifically.”

Great innovative descriptors often borrow from established terms in other categories. A spotlight is a beam of light that is narrowly focused. The Audio Spotlight is a beam of sound narrowly focused. Thankfully, whoever coined this didn’t try to rid the name of light by calling it a Spotsound or some such. Smartly, they knew people would give the name latitude and not be confused by the presence of the word light. Today, we rent movies from iTunes, and don’t think twice even though the name suggests music and not video. 

“Singing Fingers allows children to fingerpaint with sound.”

Descriptors don’t have to be boring or rigidly literal. A descriptor like Sonic Fingerpainting would get the job done, but why choose that when you could have Singing Fingers? Singing is understood to mean creating sound, so it fits the bill poetically.  

In the spirit of balance and eschewing unadulterated adulation, I will mention two names that might be a bit off the mark:  

“Prototype furniture concepts that mix ‘apps with the IKEA catalog’ to explore ideas on peripheral awareness, incidental gestures, pre-attentive processing, and eavesdropping interfaces when embedded into our everyday objects.”

A beautiful name, no? Attach ambient to anything and it sounds more beautiful. Ambient contusion. Ambient putrefaction. Ambient booger. See?! Ambient furniture is somewhat misdescriptive, as it’s not furniture that’s ambient but software applications. Ambient apps would be more accurate, but who’s gonna quibble when you have the audacious euphony of Ambient Furniture?   

“The Media Lab is a place where the future is lived, not imagined. Our domain is applying unorthodox research approaches for envisioning the impact of emerging technologies on everyday life. Unconstrained by traditional disciplines, Lab designers, engineers, artists, and scientists work atelier-style, conducting more than 350 projects that range from neuroengineering, to how children learn, to a stackable, electric car for tomorrow’s city.”

With caution and humility, I gently submit that the MIT Media Lab name itself is one of their lesser descriptive name achievements. To its credit, media is a big, broad word and  covers a lot of things: computers, the arts, and scads of other relevant disciplines. But the organization’s groundbreaking work in electric cars, advanced prostheses, social signals in biomedicine, and nanowires push the meaning of media beyond what’s been established. The MIT Media Lab name does not do justice to the scope of the organization: Creating a better future. I would not deign to suggest MIT Media Lab change its venerable name, just as Microsoft shouldn’t change its name just because it sells keyboards and mice, I am merely noting the irony of a reigning name that might fall a bit short of its subjects. 

If you ever have the opportunity to describe something that’s never been described before, I hope these examples from MIT Media Lab inspire you describe greatly.


1 comment:

  1. "Storied Navigation" - could have it's roots in medieval religious architecture: most people couldn't read, so Bible stories and Catholic doctrine where disseminated via the stained glass windows, the statuary, entableture, friezes, etc. Information and communication was visual before it was written to reach the widest audience.

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