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How to run a public-oriented lab

September 24, 2010
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MIT Media Lab is very unique in many ways, but one of the most noticeable is that we are constantly dealing with the public. Many companies that sponsor the lab request visits to see the latest advances in research that we do here.

At the same time, casual visitors passing by the lab are allowed to visit the public areas. It’s also amusing when we get out of the lab for lunch only to find a bunch of businessmen paying attention to a tourist guide explaining what this building is and so on. For instance, I feel like a tropical blue parrot in a Boston Zoo at those moments.

For this reason, the spare space at the lab must be organized in a museum-oriented fashion, with all finished projects on display, accompanied by posters and so on. But the most important part of these visits are always the individuals (professors, grad students, visiting students, post-docs and so on). Every group that comes to our lab wants to learn something that’s unique, and the best way we can provide that is by giving a live presentation.

It is not practical or fair to have an individual to give all these demos every time, given that they last for around 20 minutes, and this kind of interruption is enough to break anybody’s concentration. Add to that the fact that we have an average of 4 (four) important sponsor visits every week.

The solution to that is actually very simple: have EVERYONE in the lab ready and prepared for giving a demo, and use a round-robin style allocation process. Every student here must know how to give a presentation of the lab research (around 8 to 10 finished projects in each presentation), and the resources are provided by those that actually run each project in our internal wiki.

For each project that consists of:

  • 30 seconds, 3 minutes and 15 minutes abstracts;
  • A visual and informative poster-like A4 sheet (besides the published papers);
  • The actual prototype on display (must be working);
  • A ~12 slides overall presentation of the Camera Culture group and the projects;

Unfortunately, I’m not allowed to show pictures of the projects on display and the lab layout, but I hope that my explanation was enough to give an idea on how things work. In a couple of weeks, the most important demo-oriented event will take place here, the Sponsor Week, when around 350 companies will come to see what we have to show. I’ll have a lot to tell about that then.

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