Digital Journal Mavericks: The Woman Creating New Human-Tech Relationships

Posted May 31, 2008 by David Silverberg
Pattie Maes  founder of Ambient Intelligence Group
Pattie Maes started MIT's Ambient Intelligence Group seven years ago, and since then it has stressed the importance of creating technologies that respond to human behaviour.
Courtesy Pattie Maes
If you want to see cutting-edge technology that bridges the human-machine gap, look no further than MIT’s Ambient Intelligence Group. The R&D lab’s leader, Pattie Maes, unveils the mind-boggling recently-completed gadgets straight out of science fiction.
Digital Journal's Mavericks of 2008 series will profile 10 trailblazers in various industries, allowing readers to learn more about the innovators and risk-takers who are making an impact in 2008.
Digital Journal — A bathroom mirror recognizing who you are and displaying your recent bank transactions. A digital Post-It note sending SMS messages to cellphones. A high-tech picture frame whose photos “react” to a viewer’s behaviour. These are just some of the projects bustling under the roof of the Ambient Intelligence Group out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Its main goal is to rethink how we interact with machines. The Group’s researchers are focusing on unique ideas no one else is undertaking. And if more companies with deep pockets start to take notice, those ideas will be coming to us soon and ushering in a new era of digital living.
Part of MIT’s celebrated Media Lab, the Ambient Intelligence Group started seven years ago and allows 14 graduate and under-grad students to work on technology projects for four years at a time. The stay-at-home professor is founder Pattie Maes, who is quick to explain the Group’s MO: “We want to integrate our digital lives and services more closely into our daily physical lives.”
Maes should know a thing or two about human-computer interaction, and not just because she’s a leading researcher at one of the top American universities: She was the organizer of the first major conference on interface agents at MIT in October 1992; she went the entrepreneur route by creating Open Ratings, a ranking system to improve the effectiveness of e-commerce relationships between business buyers and suppliers (later acquired by D&B); Newsweek magazine named her one of the “100 Americans to watch for” in 2000; and she cut her teeth as a research scientist at the MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab. The Ambient Intelligence Group is her most absorbing venture yet, and she’s diving into it headfirst.
In a nutshell, this rotating team of dedicated computer engineers, scientists and overall technophiles want to create electronic devices that can learn how to interact with people. If it sounds like a broad overarching mission, it is, but Maes says there are many opportunities to bridge the offline and digital worlds, especially since this field is still in its infancy. Judging by the various gadgets the Group has already produced (described below), this team of innovative researchers is on the cusp of this exciting convergence.
In an interview with, Maes, 46, spoke about the challenge of creating viable business models for the Group’s ideas, and why a “Wi-Fi pillow” could be stuffed with sensors to keep long-distance friends in touch.
Pattie Maes creates human-machine interfaces
"There is valuable info on the Net that can be hard to access if you’re on the move, and we need to change that," Patti Maes said. "We want to shuttle info to you that is relevant, without disrupting your daily routine."
Courtesy Pattie Maes How does the Ambient Intelligence Group want to connect the online and offline worlds?
Pattie Maes: Right now, we live in two worlds: we meet people in person, read books, shop for things at stores, but we also live through our online selves. Those two worlds are not all that connected or integrated. So when you bump into a person on the street, you can’t see their Facebook or MySpace page. Or you can’t know if you’ve bumped into that person before. We want to change that — we want to make it possible to access digital info that is relevant to what you’re currently doing. If you meet someone in person, you should be able to get info about that person, like what online interactions they had that relate to you. And if you buy a product, maybe you’ll want to see instant reviews of that product or how many units it has sold so far. But isn’t there a desire to maintain that separation between the online and offline worlds? Some people have complained that technology is overrunning their lives.
Maes: I’m not a sociologist so I can’t say whether people want to be more connected or not. But it seems to me that younger generations especially like to be connected all the time, and they venture into the extreme situation where they are constantly in communication with groups of friend to let them know what they’re doing, where they are. There is a trend right now to broadcast your life.
: Are we at a stage where there is unprecedented research on creating devices and systems responsive to human actions, or do we have a long way to go?
Maes: There’s still a lot of work that remains to be done. We like to invent new disciplines or look at new problems, and invent bandwagons rather than jump on them. There is valuable info on the Net that can be hard to access if you’re on the move, and we need to change that. We want to shuttle info to you that is relevant, without disrupting your daily routine. What’s the Group’s main challenge?
Maes: The challenge is not a technical one. Those problems are easiest to overcome. The challenge is to figure out business models and find out how to best launch these services. The Media Lab works closely with a range of industry sponsors, compared to most university labs funded by the government. We have these relationships so electronics companies could introduce products we invent.
Look at Guitar Hero for example. That technology was invented by a Media Lab researcher years ago. We didn’t get much credit for that, and maybe we’ll get that Guitar Hero money at some point [laughing].
: We’d love to know more about some projects at the Group. Tell me about the Post-It note for the next generation, what you guys call Quickies.
Maes: There are already devices that can digitize what you’re writing on paper. So we took that to the next level by using a commercial digitizer clips on a stack of Post-Its. You use a special pen that communicates with ultrasound to two sensors on a clip-on part of the note. The handwriting digitization performs character recognition, so it gets to know certain words and their meaning. If you wrote on this new Post-It note, “Hey John let’s go to dinner,” the software digitizes the message, and the system looks up John’s info on your cellphone’s address book and it sends him an SMS message containing your words.
An RFID tag is attached to the back of each Quickie, so it can be organized efficiently and stored for easy access on your PC. Also, let’s say you want to ask the Quickie a question, like “Doctor Smith’s sddress?” The system recognizes the question, is equipped with a printer and prints out the address just by looking up the details in your address book. There is lots of interest in this project, which started just 10 months ago, and we’re in talks with various companies to figure out how to bring this to market.
How Quickies Work (a video)
: The Group also created something called an Augmented Mirror. How does that work?
Maes: It’s a mirror that reflects your image — just like any mirror — but it also displays some information based on which family member is looking in the mirror. Every family member can personalize the information that gets presented when you look in the mirror. So you can look up your calendar for today, your spending habits for the month, the value of your stock portfolio, which friends you haven’t called in a while. The mirror is a half-mirror and there is an LCD screen behind it as well as a camera to recognize the person.
It’s not interactive yet, meaning it’s not outfitted with a touch screen, but in the future I can picture this technology allowing people to gesture to change functions.
The Group s Augmented Mirror project
Ambient Intelligence Group's Augmented Mirror can display news headlines and stock quotes based on who is standing in front of it.
Courtesy Ambient Intelligence Group The Moving Portrait, as your website explains, contains “cognitive architecture to control the portrait’s reaction, taking into account the viewer’s behavior, the portrait’s mood, as well as memory of previous interactions.” So this digital picture frame reacts to my actions as a viewer?
Maes: The frame has a camera on the front that uses face-detection software to figure out how many people are looking at the picture. It does different things based on the amount of viewers. When one person looks at the photo of the little girl in the frame, the JPEG switches to her smiling and opening up. When more people crowd around the photo, and the camera recognizes that, the girl becomes shy and peeks behind her hands.
This project can let a photographer capture the personality of his subject, and allow the Moving Portrait to display that personality based on how the photos are received.
: The Relational Pillow sounds interesting — it’s filled with light and touch sensors and a Wi-Fi connection. It can transmit a light-filled message to another pillow across the world, right?
The Relational Pillow
Ambient Intelligence Group's Relational Pillow is outfitted with light and touch sensors, along with a Wi-Fi connection.
Courtesy Ambient Intelligence Group
Maes: Yes, you can literally draw a smile with your fingers on one Pillow and send it to another Relational Pillow. The information on one Pillow is transmitted to another, simply using the lights inside. The Pillow acts as a pictorial communication channel between two people, perhaps between long-distance friends or couples.
I think there’s an audience for the Relational Pillow. One thing that we’re interested in is how the Pillow could be applied as a touchpad on a fridge, for example, so kids can write a message to their mom at work and her touchpad at the office would display what they sent.

Mavericks Series

This is the eighth profile in a 10-part series on Mavericks of 2008, focusing on trailblazers in various fields, from Internet to photography to music. Every day, read about a new industry maverick. Tomorrow, we discover how a graphic design studio is breathing new life into rebranding campaigns and tweaks the concept of music videos.
Other Mavericks:
- Ron Deibert, creator of Psiphon software: Psiphon is a censorship-fighting tool, allowing those in oppressive regimes to access any website.
- Jayant Agarwalla, the inventor of the Scrabulous game: Scrabulous riffs off the classic Scrabble board game, and it's become the center of a controversial lawsuit launched by Hasbro and Mattel.
- Nikki Yanofsky, a 14-year-old jazz singer: Yanofsky is a teenage jazz prodigy who's already played Carnegie Hall and jazz festivals, giving audiences a taste of the talent brewing in her golden voice.
- Phil Borges, a photographer capturing the forgotten cultures of indigenous tribes: Passionate about foreign ways of life, Seattle-based Phil Borges wants to let the West know about endangered tribes and villages through his impacting photographs.
- Ben Popken, editor of blog The Consumerist: Few blogs fight for consumer rights as well as The Consumerist, which criticizes corporate scams big and small.
- Ausma Khan, editor of Muslim Girl magazine: Targeting an oft-misaligned demographic, Muslim Girl gives Islamic teens role models and advice on modern Muslim-American living.
- Patrice Desilets, creative director of gaming company Ubisoft: Game publisher Ubisoft is experimenting with new technologies and stretching its lineup past its Tom Clancy series.