Sponsor Days

Oct 20 2004 Kelly Norton

I will apologize in advance for posting yet another “life at the Media Lab” article, but there isn't much more for me to write about. Lately, my world contains only two environments: the PLW studio and public transportation. It wasn't until last night that I was even aware of baseball season or that the Red Sox are embroiled in some sort of come-from-behind hoopla with the Yankees. Which is a testament to how focused my attention has been lately, since I now realize there is no other topic of conversation anywhere in the Boston area. It certainly explains the large group of students cheering around the big screen TV in the lab the other night and why the last bus failed to show up on Monday (Public transportation stays open long enough to provide transportation for the games and the last bus leaves shortly after the last train arrives). At the time though, I was completely wrapped up in preparing for my first Media Lab sponsor event.

MIT Media Lab Sponsor Open House Props

The sponsor events are sort of a defining element of Media Lab culture and experiences. There is the often espoused principle of “Demo or Die” that is supposed to encapsulate the difference in approach from typical academia where the mantra is “Publish or Perish,” and it is during the sponsor meeting when the proverbial death comes knocking. The events run very much like a conference; there is a keynote speech followed by research updates and an assortment of catered fare to fill the gaps. I missed most of that, with the exception of the research update, where I was asked to give a two-minute talk on the stuff I've been working on. By that point, though, I was so utterly exhausted from averaging about fours hours of sleep per night for three weeks straight that I couldn't really focus on any of the other speakers so I retired upstairs to put a few finishing touches on my demo. In the afternoon, the dreaded hours begin for the students. There are four hours of open house, where sponsors roam the halls of the lab being presented demo after demo of student work. For the students, it's non-stop talking and showing. At one point, there were about fifty people standing around in our small space wiggling into corners to try to get a better position from which to eavesdrop on a demo that was underway. And while the schedule sets up only three hours of demos, closing each floor for about an hour to allow students to catch their breath, the schedule is largely ignored and sponsors just keep streaming in asking for demos.

from Open House Demo Poster
from my open house demo poster

Much to my surprise, I got some positive feedback on my demo which I began working on only last Friday. I sort of inherited a project seed from Carlos, who had to return to Columbia due to family emergency. After watering it with my sweat for most of the weekend, I managed to grow it only to about the stature of the Christmas tree in the Charlie Brown special. Fortunately, many of the sponsors are from research labs and don't get too wrapped up in the implementation details.

During all of the mad preparation, there was also the minor annoyance of classes. I actually had a group presentation in my media theory class Monday night, after being awake for most of the weekend. Despite my pleading that we get started early, my group never could agree on times to meet and seemed disinterested in really approaching the group project as a group. In fact, one member chose a topic very dear to her and then became unavailable to discuss it any further. MIT is yet another school that buys into this misguided notion that group projects are somehow more representative of real world projects. I think the intention is right, but the assignments are often such that nothing is gained from cooperation and so the method is generally ineffective. I will save that rant for later, though.