Advice to new researchers

A few years ago my brother was giving a talk to new graduates going out to do research in digital media and asked if I had any axioms, mottos, or stories from the MIT Media Lab in the late 90s that I might give. Here are the four I sent him.

Does it make toast?

One researcher who had just joined our wearables group said he wanted to design a “general purpose wearable.” I asked him “does it make toast?” He looked at me a little perplexed and said no, of course it doesn’t. “Then it isn’t really general purpose,” I responded. “Now, what’s the set of activities that you really intend for it to be used for, so we can design something that covers that set?” Whenever I’m designing a new device or application I try to come up with one to four usage scenarios. These scenarios form the corners of the design space. They also let me ask “if I built this, would anyone care” before I put lots of effort into designing.

(On a related note: whenever a project says “we’re trying to get our device into the hands of developers so they can figure out how to use it,” I worry. It’s fine if you already have some clearly compelling applications and you just want to find more, but too often it’s a tacit admission that you don’t really know why anyone would need your technology and you’re just hoping someone else can figure it out before your funding runs out.) 

Approximate the future.

One of the things the MIT Media Lab was good at was looking at technological trends and asking “OK, so where does this wind up in 10 years?” The wearables group was a good example: we knew that computers were getting smaller and more powerful, that microphones could soon be the size of a tic-tac, displays the size of your fingernail, etc., and we wanted to explore what we could do in that world. So we mocked it up as best we could, attaching displays the size of harmonicas to glasses frames or hats and putting computers in large purse-bags with camcorder batteries. It looked strange and was unwieldy, but we knew if we could look past the limitations that we knew would be solved by Moore’s Law then we could understand the challenges and opportunities that would remain.

Communications is always the killer app.

I remember one tutorial that Thad and I taught on wearable computing had a slide showing a cell phone, a GPS, a walkman, a camera/camcorder and a PDA (which back then meant notepad, calendar, to-do list and maybe a calculator), and we explained that soon all these devices would be converging into one. Thad and I disagreed on which of these applications would be the most important though — which application will convince people to buy the device, and which ones can you skimp on when you need to make trade-offs? Thad thought it would be home electronics like the camera and the music player. I remembered back to reading about Minitel and similar systems that always seemed to be subverted to be a communications device and declared that (human-to-human) communication would always be the killer app. Not all the interface decisions have gone my way (I was particularly surprised when the iPhone got rid of the physical keyboard, trading off more screen for harder input) but I’d still contend that if people had to choose between a phone/IM/SMS/Facebook device or all other smartphone apps they’d choose the former (especially if you throw the Web into that list).

What you should know once you have your degree.

Not really related to research but it’s something I tell people thinking of going into grad school:

When I got my Bachelor’s degree, I knew everything.
Then I got my Master’s degree, and realized that I actually knew nothing.
Then I got my PhD, and realized that no one else knew anything either.