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Three from MIT are winners of Discover finalist awards

MIT researchers and their colleagues have won three finalists' prizes in the annual Discover Magazine award competition.

The prize-winning innovations were swift new audio-clipping software, a microscopic traffic simulator that predicts traffic flow based on drivers' real driving styles, and a technology known as PAN that transmits information among communications devices carried by an individual, including cellular phones and pagers.

The Discover Awards acknowledge "the creativity of the men, women and corporations/institutions who have reached superior levels of ingenuity." Each of the winners and finalists will be featured in the July issue of Discover. They also received all-expenses-paid trips to Disneyworld for themselves and a guest.

Discover Awards are given in seven categories: automotive and transportation, aviation and aerospace, computer hardware and electronics, computer software, environment, sight and sound. Five finalists are named per category; out of the five, one is chosen as overall winner for that category. An eighth category, "Editor's Choice," has only one finalist and winner. This category is for "any new innovation or technology that, by virtue of its `newness,' does not fit into any of the other categories."


Michael Casey, a doctoral student in the Listening Machines group at the Media Laboratory, is "one of the first in a new generation: the kid who got a computer instead of a piano; the kid for whom the computer, not the piano, is his first musical instrument," he said. "That's me. I saved my birthday money and bought a computer. My first program was a requiem by Mozart--I couldn't read music, but I had to sing the piece for school. So I programmed my computer to play the sounds for me."

That was back in elementary school in England. Today, Mr. Casey is a Mitsubishi Fellow at the Media Lab and a veteran of the electronics giant's Diamond Park ("I was the sound guy"), a large-scale virtual-reality project. NetSound, the innovation for which he won the Discover prize, is an audio-clipping software program that can "keep information about the notes themselves, throw away the sound, then reconstruct it all on the other side," he said.

NetSound's other virtue is speed of downloading, he added. It differs from other current techniques in that it does not digitize a stream of sounds, turn them into a string of numbers and compress these for downloading "travel" from the Internet to an individual site. Rather, NetSound "deconstructs" the sound of a symphony--breaks it into models of the way different instruments sound--and transmits that information as well as the score, then "reconstructs" it all on arrival at its destination.

For example, the sound of a woman's shoe hitting wet pavement is really a series of clicks and other events. Mr. Casey can thus reduce a tense horror film scene of a woman running down a wet street after dark to components such as clicks and tings. NetSound takes apart the tiny, specific sounds of this scene, transmits them as "building blocks" of the musical phrase into another computer, then rebuilds them into a tense scene again.

Mr. Casey, who is getting married on Saturday, June 14, plans to drive to California to test the job waters there.

"The Discover Awards do something very good. They bring progressive new techniques into the public eye, and they put light on the people who invent new things. NASA was at Disneyworld. I was interested in what others were doing there. It was definitely wonderful to be nominated," he said.


The traffic simulator chosen for a Discover finalist award was developed by Qi Yang as a component of both his SM and PhD theses (Mr. Yang received his doctoral hood last Thursday).

Mr. Yang's traffic simulator, which runs on a workstation, is called MITSIM, for MIcroscopic Traffic SIMulator. Microscopic refers to the treatment of traffic as a set of individual vehicles, or particles, allowing each vehicle to move according to its own characteristics. The more common macroscopic simulator treats traffic like a fluid, but anyone who spends more than five minutes in a car between, say, Quincy and Boston, can see that "fluid" does not describe the scene. MITSIM is more lifelike because it allows for differences among drivers' personalities, he said.

MITSIM already has a practical application: it helps researchers to test various traffic management systems for the Central Artery/Harbor Tunnel (CA/T), the spawling "Big Dig" construction project that will eventually relocate the elevated portion of Boston's I-93 underground and extend the Massachusetts Turnpike to Logan Airport via a new tunnel.

"The simulator is designed to be very flexible, making it possible to incorporate various driver behavior models and a wide spectrum of traffic management system designs," said Rabi G. Mishalani, a research associate in the Intelligent Transportation Systems Program in the Center for Transportation Studies. It has more variable components than most other simulators and a graphical user interface (GUI) that allows the operator to watch the cars move through the simulated freeway on the computer screen.

When a researcher starts the simulation and activates the GUI, she sees a bright, multicolored ribbon on the screen. When she zooms in closer, she sees a section of the new freeway, with layers of tunnels and roads, on- and off-ramps and little moving colored rectangles. Each rectangle represents a vehicle with its assigned characteristics. They change lanes, exit hurriedly and sometimes even have accidents, just like real cars do.

For each traffic management system simulation on MITSIM, data about the number, types and destinations of vehicles are given to the computer program (for example, 524 vehicles driven by Bruins fans are headed south after midnight during a light blizzard with high winds). Highway characteristics such as the number of open lanes and conditions of the road surface are also provided.

"At the fundamental level, vehicle behavior is in the form of a set of mathematical relationships, each one invoked under certain conditions," Dr. Mishalani said.

As each vehicle enters the simulated Central Artery, it grabs a "packet" of vehicle characteristics that will determine its behavior on the road. Not only does each vehicle have a size, type, occupancy level and destination--it also has driver characteristics. These include the driver's desired speed, propensity to yield to other vehicles, lane-changing behavior and route decisions. There's even a driver impatience factor that makes each driver's choices more realistic.

Mr. Yang's work was sponsored by the Massachusetts Highway Department through Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff. Professor Moshe Ben-Akiva of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering is the principal investigator.


Thomas G. Zimmerman (SM '95) won a Discover finalist's award for Personal Area Networks (PAN), a technology that uses the natural electrical conductivity of the human body to transmit electronic data.

The Discover award focused on a particular application of the PAN technology, namely, the way it can exchange information among communications devices carried by an individual, including cellular phones, pagers, personal digital assistants and smart cards.

For example, upon receiving a page, the number could be automatically uploaded to the cellular phone, requiring the user to simply hit the "send" button. This automation increases accuracy and safety, especially in driving situations.

Other applications of PAN include passing simple data between electronic devices carried by two human beings, such as an electronic business card exchanged during a handshake.

Also, PAN could help automate and secure consumer business transactions. For example, a public phone equipped with PAN sensors would automatically identify the user, who would no longer have to input calling-card numbers and PINs. This application significantly reduces fraud and makes calling easier and more convenient for users.

In a slightly more futuristic vein, PAN could enable health service workers to safely and quickly identify patients, their medical histories and unique medical needs by simply touching them. This application would be particularly helpful in accident situations or where the patient is unable to communicate.

Researchers at IBM's Almaden Center, building on Mr. Zimmerman's work, have a small prototype transmitter (roughly the size of a deck of cards) embedded with a microchip, and a slightly larger receiving device. Using these devices, they can transmit a pre-programmed electronic business card between two people via a simple handshake. What's more, the prototype allows data to be transmitted from sender to receiver through up to four touching bodies.

PAN grew out of work between Professor Michael Hawley's Personal Information Architecture group and Professor Neil Gershenfeld's Physics and Media group, both at the Media Lab. Initial research was funded by the IBM Corp., Hewlett-Packard and the Festo Didactic Corp.

Mr. Zimmerman (now at the IBM Almaden Research Center/User System Ergonomics Research), working closely with Professor Gershenfeld, realized that data could be sent through the body by modulating the electric field used in position measurement experiments. This technique was developed by Mr. Zimmerman in part while MIT was working with magicians Penn and Teller to refine an illusion in which Penn Jillette "played" musical instruments without touching them.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on June 11, 1997.

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