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Building ideas

Massachusetts research labs lay a foundation for the next wave of growth

By Scott Kirsner, 9/18/2002

Nervous young researchers are scrambling in and out of a windowless room at the Mitsubishi Electric Research Lab in Cambridge. They've just tripped a circuit breaker by trying to run four digital projectors simultaneously.

click here

Once the power returns, a program they've written begins to neatly stitch together the images from each of the projectors, creating a massive single image an IMAX movie for the corporate conference room.

But the program keeps crashing in mid-stitch.

If it worked perfectly the first time, it just wouldn't be the technological bleeding edge. A few minutes later, the snafu has been surmounted, and the projectors begin to harmonize. They paint a rush of colorful imagery against the uneven wall, adjusting flawlessly to its odd angle.

Despite the technology sector's lingering funk, research groups like Mitsubishi's are still working on new hardware and software that could prompt future growth spurts. And Mitsubishi is just one of dozens of commercial and academic research labs in the Boston area that continue to cultivate and prototype promising new technologies.

Even as many tech companies struggle and fail, ''the research infrastructure doesn't die in the Boston area,'' says Donald Fraser, director of the Photonics Center at Boston University and a former director of Draper Labs, the MIT spinoff that devised the guidance systems for NASA's Apollo moon missions. ''In slow economic periods, you may have a smaller number of people or projects at some of the labs, but you can't really argue that the sky is falling.''

Indeed, some of Boston's research labs have been surprisingly durable. BBN Technologies, which helped lay the groundwork for the Internet, has been around for more than 50 years. Lotus Development's research team managed to survive the company's 1995 acquisition by IBM intact, and Hewlett-Packard's Cambridge Research Lab traces its lineage to a research group started in the 1980s by Digital Equipment Corp.

The area's innovation engines haven't been completely insulated from the economic turmoil affecting the rest of the technology world. With the bankruptcy and subsequent piecemeal sale of the Cambridge consulting firm Arthur D. Little earlier this year, that firm's once-impressive research and development activity has dissipated. But other groups, like Harvard's new Nanoscale Science and Engineering Center, which will tinker with atoms and molecules to build tiny devices, are just getting up to speed.

Here's a sampling of a few of the local groups, both academic and commercial, conducting research that looks ahead to the post-Internet era.

BBN Technologies

Founded in 1948 by two MIT professors and a student, BBN is the Rolling Stones of the high-tech research world: The group has stayed together longer than anyone would've predicted, and they've produced an impressive string of greatest hits. After starting off as an acoustics consulting firm and helping to design the United Nations General Assembly Hall, BBN purchased a computer in 1958 and began making history.

In 1962, the company performed the first public demonstration of computer time-sharing, which enabled multiple users to run different computing jobs simultaneously on a single machine. By the late '60s, under contract from the Department of Defense's Advanced Projects Research Agency (ARPA), BBN had built the first four nodes of the ARPANET, which eventually spawned the Internet. In 1971, the company sent the first e-mail, using the @ sign to separate the user's name from the name of the computer.

BBN Technologies in Cambridge is today owned by Verizon, generating about $100 million in revenues a year, mainly from government contracts.

The company is developing sophisticated speech recognition and language understanding systems that can, for example, discern the difference in meaning between ''My phone is out of order'' and ''I want to order a new phone line.'' A system called Rough

'n' Ready can listen to a radio broadcast like ''Morning Edition'' and automatically index it, categorizing topics and identifying speakers, making the content of the program more easily searchable. US intelligence agencies are already using the system to monitor broadcasts in foreign countries.

A longer-term project will attempt to build a ''quantum mechanical network for secure key distribution,'' says BBN president Tad Elmer. It would make data encryption more secure because the system would be able to tell when a key - used to encode and decode information - had been intercepted, since anyone trying to eavesdrop would disturb the photons used to make up the key. Once the key had been safely sent, information could be exchanged without worry, even over unsecured networks.

BBN has shrunk from 700 to about 600 employees over the last year ''because of the dearth of research money out there,'' says Elmer. ''But we're hiring now, and we expect to be growing in the second half of this year and next year. The future looks very good. We're winning a lot of contracts.''

Orange Imagineering

The newest corporate lab in the area, the Orange Innovation Centre, feels like a throwback to the upbeat days of the dot-com era. Run by Orange, a European wireless carrier owned by France Telecom, the Cambridge facility is outfitted with sliding walls, exposed ductwork, Razor scooters, large plasma screens, and a dozing bulldog in the reception area.

Though Rich Miner, the lab's director, says that ''the planning of this wasn't about the excitement of the Internet,'' the Innovation Centre is a haven for many entrepreneurs who worked for local Internet companies of varying degrees of success, including NetCentric (now defunct), Ars Digita (defunct, assets bought by RedHat), and Viant (acquired after a protracted stock price plunge).

Miner is himself an entrepreneur. He helped start Wildfire, which produced an intelligent digital receptionist that handled phone calls, and was acquired by Orange in 2000. ''The reason we've embraced entrepreneurs as researchers is that they're good at looking at emerging technologies and building new products that you can quickly get into the hands of lots of people,'' Miner says. ''We're here to help prototype new concepts and ideas that will become new products.''

Most of the Innovation Centre's projects are geared to creating new data applications for mobile phones. ''Orange's goal is to have 25 percent of our revenue come from data by 2005, and to achieve that goal we need to deliver new services,'' Miner says. One project would allow you to hold your wireless phone up to a radio, have the phone identify the song and artist, and e-mail you the information so you could purchase the recording. Another would enable phones with color displays to present live sporting contests, with tiny graphical icons representing the players and the ball.

The most whimsically named project, ''Clockwork Orange,'' uses a wireless phone in conjunction with a talking alarm clock to wake you by reading aloud a customized news and weather report or a list of your recent e-mails.

Mitsubishi Electric

Research Lab

The researchers at Mitsubishi Electric Research Lab in Kendall Square conduct demos more like magicians than engineers. Hold this telephone to your ear, they're apt to instruct a visitor. Now pull it away from your ear. Now put it back.

Somehow, you've missed not a second of the conversation - everything that the speaker has said while the phone was away from your ear has been stored digitally. The phone senses when it's against your ear and when it's not, and when you're listening after a break, it replays what you missed at a slightly faster-than-normal rate, until you catch up with the real-time conversation. Potentially very useful for cellphones used in the car.

MERL, as the lab is known, attempts to improve and simplify the way humans interact with technology.

''Everything that Mitsubishi makes, from elevators to power plants to white goods, requires an interface between a human and the machine,'' says Joe Marks, MERL's director. Despite corporate budget cutting at many Mitsubishi divisions and the recent strengthening of the dollar relative to the Japanese yen, Marks says Mitsubishi hasn't reduced MERL's budget, and the lab's contingent of 45 researchers has remained stable over the past few years.

One team of MERL researchers is devising software so that multiple LCD projectors (which Mitsubishi makes) can be used together, to create large images on sometimes irregular surfaces. Another team is working on analyzing faces in a video image, discerning which direction people are looking, what sex they are, and, perhaps eventually, their age and facial expression. That technology might be used to conduct a demographic analysis of the audience at a rock concert or count the number of people waiting for an elevator on a particular floor to determine how many cars are needed there.

The most fun project: an interactive table called DiamondTouch, which allows several people sitting around it to use their fingertips to manipulate images - like maps or photographs - projected onto the surface. Your fingers become the mouse, and the table can tell the difference between your and those of a colleague sitting across the table. It feels like an entirely new way of working with information, which, the MERL magicians say, is exactly the point.

Photonics Center

at Boston University

Donald Fraser, director of the Photonics Center, bristles at the description of his $110 million facility as a research lab. Yes, he acknowledges, 60 Boston University faculty members conduct basic research in the 10-story building just off Commonwealth Avenue. But, Fraser says, ''Our mission is to create and accelerate the new generation of photonics companies. We try to harvest good research and turn it into good companies.'' The center has its own venture fund and an incubator for fledgling companies on its sixth floor.

The term photonics encompasses any sort of ''practical application of light,'' Fraser explains. That means everything from compact disk players to laser eye surgery equipment to new machines that use light to read the genetic code from a scrap of DNA. But another kind of photonics - optical networking gear that can send data over fiber-optic strands at blazingly fast speeds - had been sucked into the telecommunications equipment downdraft, making it very hard to start and grow companies in that area.

Fraser says that many of the companies being incubated at the Photonics Center these days are interested in health care applications. One, PhotoDetection Systems, is developing a less expensive kind of PET scan for cancer diagnosis and treatment. Another, SOLX, hopes to use a low-powered laser to reduce or even eliminate glaucoma sufferers' reliance on medication.

''What we've formed here is a very unique thing for a university,'' Fraser says. ''We can join research with funding and equipment and space and business expertise in one place.''

But Fraser acknowledges that, in the current environment, it's difficult to raise money for Beacon Photonics, the center's venture capital fund, and he says that his incubator space is currently less than half full. While the Photonics Center is already eight years old, it is still trying to prove that its model can work.

MIT Media Lab

This year got off to a turbulent start for the Media Lab at MIT, a group that attempts to prototype the technologies that will shape the future of entertainment, publishing, communications, and learning. Following the layoffs of 29 staffers in December, there was a round of cost-cutting that nixed free lunches and limited travel, and accounting errors revealed a presumed $13 million surplus instead to be a multimillion-dollar deficit.

Media Lab director Walter Bender dismisses the budget issues as ''mostly a matter of our `checking account' [being] slightly overdrawn and our `savings account' [having] a positive balance.'' But he acknowledges that the lab has had to adapt its finances to the new market realities: While the lab has relied on corporate sponsors to underwrite the vast majority of its $40 million budget since its founding in 1985, it's currently negotiating a radical shift to more reliance on government funding.

''We had a large number of sponsors in telecommunications,'' Bender says, ''and when companies are in the midst of massive layoffs, it's hard [for them] to send money outside the company.'' Before long, he says, as much as 40 percent of the lab's funding could come from government grants.

On the brighter side, lab researcher Neil Gershenfeld nabbed a $13.75 million grant from the National Science Federation to start the new Center for Bits and Atoms, which Gershenfeld describes as ''the Media Lab for physical science.'' It will attempt to merge computing and information display with new kinds of materials, like living cells.

''We had a digital revolution,'' Gershenfeld says. ''We're looking beyond it, where bits meet the rest of the world. We have developed some of the world's first quantum computers, where molecules do the computing, and we're also working to run programs in [living] cells, to make nanostructures by programming the workings of living things.''

Construction of a 197,000-square-foot addition for the lab has been delayed, pending the completion of fund-raising. But Media Lab founder Nicholas Negroponte says that despite the tough economic times, the lab will continue to expand internationally. Two outposts have already been established, in India and Ireland, and two more, in Latin America and Australia, are on the drawing board. (A financial plus: The overseas labs are underwritten by the governments of the host countries, not MIT.) ''In each case, the idea is to bring new questions to the lab, and send people out into new contexts,'' writes Negroponte via e-mail.

EMC

The federal government was less secretive about the Manhattan Project than EMC is about its research activities. Who's in charge of advanced research for the Hopkinton-based data storage company? EMC won't say. How many people are involved? No comment.

And what are some of the next-generation technologies EMC is exploring? ''I don't want to get into the technologies we're looking at, because I don't want the competition to know where we're going,'' says Chris Gahagan, a senior vice president at the company.

Researchers at EMC don't maintain a publicly accessible Web site, unlike most of the other corporate research divisions profiled here, and they rarely publish journal articles or present at technical conferences. Perhaps that's not surprising, given EMC's reputation as the rather insular and extremely competitive pacesetter of the storage industry.

What Gahagan will reveal is that EMC's researchers are, like the rest of the company, focusing more on new software initiatives than on storage hardware these days. And they're considering the question of how EMC customers can ''get more from their existing technology,'' managing storage equipment more efficiently, with fewer people. EMC maintains research and development shops in Hopkinton, Milford, and Cambridge, as well one in North Carolina and two overseas.

While EMC will spend about $130 million less on research and development this year than in 2001, spokesman Greg Eden says EMC is actually spending more this year than last when R&D expenditures are viewed as a percentage of total revenue: 15 percent in 2002, vs. 13 percent in 2001. ''Fifteen percent of revenue is aggressive at any time, particularly times like these,'' he says.

Scott Kirsner is a contributing editor at Wired and Fast Company magazines. He can be reached at mailto:%20kirsner@att.net.

This story ran on page G1 of the Boston Globe on 9/18/2002.
Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.

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