As part of this year’s freshman orientation at MIT, new students encountered the typical lineup of takeaways: booklets and brochures, a list of 101 things to do before they graduate, lots of T-shirts, pens, etc. For the first time, however, they were also given a completely new version of the old campus staple: the backpack.
Heaped into an uneven pyramid in the Coffeehouse, a room on the third floor of the Stratton Student Center that serves as orientation headquarters, there were dozens of bags — all with a seemingly identical black, white, and grey plaid design. They looked unassuming until Yoel Fink, professor of materials science, started talking to students about them: “These bags are the world’s first programmable backpacks!” he effused. The students leaned in closer, intrigued.
“We express our identity through the fabrics we wear,” said Fink. “And while each one of us is truly unique, the stuff we wear is certainly not,” he added. What if it were? What if our fabrics — say, the ones making up our backpacks — could communicate?
Thanks to Fink, now they can. A unique code is woven into the fabric material of the backpack given to each first-year student. Unlike a QR code, this fabric-based coding system is subtle to the eye but immediately recognizable by an app called AFFOA LOOKS. The owner can link his or her backpack to their mobile device and program it to display a song, a cause, or anything the owner chooses to share. Anyone with the app can scan or “look” the bag and receive this information (in Fink’s case, it’s his business card and a customized song of the day).
Fink is a co-inventor of the tech behind the bag and the CEO of Advanced Functional Fabrics of America (AFFOA). Located close to the MIT campus, the nonprofit institute was recently created through a $300 million proposal backed by federal and state governments, as well as academic and corporate partners, with the mission of creating functional fabrics that deliver value-added services while facilitating domestic manufacturing and economic growth in this area.
“The fabrics we wear have been functionally the same for centuries,” Fink explained to a packed house in Kresge Auditorium later in the day. “What we wanted to create was a fabric that is as unique as you are.” The manufacturing process employs special looms and materials, he explained. And the bags themselves are exclusive — not sold anywhere. They were made by Inman Mills in South Carolina just for the members of MIT’s Class of 2021.
The plan to give out the backpacks was first proposed by Katharina Ribbeck, a professor in the Department of Biological Engineering, who pointed out that the pack could help facilitate interactions and learning among incoming students. Her proposal was supported by Ian A. Waitz, MIT’s newly appointed vice chancellor and former dean of engineering, who saw it as an opportunity to give new students a way to directly engage with novel technology and each another (and a free place to store their gear and books). There are already plans for a hack-the-pack event during January’s Independent Activities Period.
For Fink, the functional aspect of the backpack is social in another way. Every first-year student he speaks with leaves with a broader understanding of the term “software” (as in soft wear). He wants incoming students to glean that manufacturing is undergoing a transformation; it’s as high-tech and as hot as coding, artificial intelligence, gene editing, and autonomy. It’s an option, a pursuit, a place for passion and a way for self-expression and creativity.
“If you are coming to MIT for the fist time,” he said, waving at the pile of coded bags behind him, “this is what is the place is all about. It’s about innovation and making a difference.”