MIT Project Mercury – Accelerating Wireless Innovation & Deployment

DRAFT – Comments & Criticism Welcome


Joost Bonsen * 2 May 2002 * * 617.930.0415


MIT Project Mercury – Project Mercury is a proposed series of ongoing and escalating information technology and social systems experiments at MIT, deploying the latest ultra-dense, high bandwidth wireless networks, along with flocks of next-generation end-user interface devices, all while paying close attention to ongoing user experiences and interests.


Envisioning the Future – With Project Mercury equipment and infrastructure, MIT furthers a powerful potential role as premier technology testbed, specifically by becoming the lead neutral ground test site of choice for up-and-coming wireless communications and consumer electronics devices, interfaces, and killer applications.  We would literally see the future first, a source of tremendous competitive advantage, educational value, inventive and entrepreneurial inspiration, and scholarly insight.  If we chose to deploy Mercury on a school-by-school basis, MIT Sloan, for example, would go beyond merely keeping up with peer institutions and instead leapfrog ahead of them, as the premier technology business school should.


Project Athena, Part 2 – Project Mercury is analogous in many ways to Project Athena, a bold MIT campus-wide wired network workstation-class computing experiment, now beyond experimental phase and part of MIT Information Systems.  Furthermore, Project Athena prototyped many of the Human Experimental Subject considerations and strictures Project Mercury would ascribe to.


Beyond Project Notebook – MIT is in the middle of deploying 802.11b wireless LANs at Sloan and throughout the Institute under the Project Notebook IS/CET initiative.  The Media Lab and other specific labs and groups (e.g. the GSC) have been using such wireless LANs for over a year now.  But current deployments are incremental and neither (a) push technological envelopes, nor (b) accelerate the growth of the user population.


Bold Initiative Embracing Ad Hoc Efforts – MIT Sloan and others are already proposing and even deploying wireless equipment and services to special groups at MIT.  These are very exciting initiatives because they can happen quickly and without a lot of institutional angst or political overhead, but lack economies of scale, boldness of vision, and depth of impact.  MIT needs another bold initiative of Athena-like proportions to integrate and extend these ad hoc efforts.


High Common Baseline of Technology & User Sophistication – Under Project Mercury, MIT would not merely deploy WiFi 802.11b, but aggressively and densely deploy next-generation wireless networking infrastructure – including but not limited to broadband 802.11a – and further expect that every student have laptops and PDAs with key connectivity components, possibly with the help of Project subsidies.  Furthermore, we would give incentives, encouragement, and support for everyone to use these tools fully at home and school.  We would soon have a relatively sophisticated user population with the greatest per-capita wireless penetration and usage rates of anywhere worldwide.


Predictive Microcosm – Such a sophisticated high baseline population might form a new kind of lead user pool or predictive microcosm of the prospective future user population of the world at large.  As a minimum, this would be anthropologically intriguing.  We have anecdotal evidence from Project Athena that it served as just such a predictive microcosm:  (1) Email was indisputably the killer internet application and graphical browsers the most compelling interface, (2) Instant messaging via Zephyr was compelling and visible at MIT a decade before ICQ and other IM systems, (3) Network file systems, network computing, and online services were shown to be compelling a decade before the web equivalents, (4) Encryption and security was inspired and implemented, and (5) Computing was seamlessly integrated into the curriculum and, indeed, daily life. 


Fast Iteration – Project Mercury would create fertile ground for fast iteration of next generation prototype product designs.  Since everyone would have a high common baseline of wireless devices and the latest commercial wireless services, plus high adoption and usage rates, we accelerate the prototyping and alpha-testing of entirely new classes of devices amid a savvy and relatively willing population.  For example, we might see broadband wireless PDAs, mobile Voice-over-IP, wireless conference chat, and ultra-experimental wearable devices become possible and even widely desired.  Fast interation would provide invaluable feedback to the developers while exposing students and users to the absolute latest technologies and futuristic applications.


Experimental Anthropology & Comparative Market Research – The combination of a potentially predictive microcosm and fast iteration allow for extraordinarily interesting experimental anthropology, closely observing and comparing how statistically interesting populations react to emerging technologies.  Furthermore, we enable comparative market research, the parallel testing of alternative mechanisms for forecasting market interest in new technologies and new products. 


Potential for Cross Campus Research Collaborations & Beyond – Project Mercury would serve as a nexus for collaboration, spanning groups from MIT’s technology development and deployment experts through MIT’s social scientists and technology humanist researchers.  For example, MIT’s Information Systems has a wealth of experience deploying sophisticated IT in an academic environment.  Technologists from MIT’s LCS, AI Lab, Media Lab, and elsewhere are developing experimental next generation wireless systems such as Project Oxygen, Wearable Computers, and more.  Sociologists, marketing researchers, urban planners, and other social scientists from CIPD, Sloan, DUSP, and Comparative Media Studies (CMS) are interested in the impact of emerging technologies and in the problems and prospects for market forecasting.  Finally, potential corporate sponsors and partners could become quite keen on the predictive social microcosm, fast technology iteration, and experimental anthropology elements of the Project.


Summary Potential Benefits to MIT – The benefits of Project Mercury would include: 

(a)     Boosting the MIT campus and student experience,

(b)     Allowing students and staff to envision the future by experiencing it,

(c)     Creating a unified research nexus for cross campus collaboration,

(d)     Offering a prototype testbed for inventive developers to fast iterate the next generation artifacts,

(e)     Pioneering experimental anthropology via predictive microcosms,

(f)       Inspiring entrepreneurial new product and venture development,

(g)     Capturing intellectual property for truly novel Project-related inventions, and

(h)     Reaping truly great PR returns from lovely press articles covering this "archtypically MIT idea”.



·         Project Athena –

·         Research on Human Subjects –

·         Project Notebook –

·         Cisco/Radiata's 802.11a Promises –

·         Project Oxygen –

·         MIT IS –

·         Wearable Computing –

·         Product Innovation –

·         MIT Sloan Virtual Customer –

·         MIT CMS –