Media Lab Europe, run out of an old Guinness brewery in Dublin, was the brainchild of the creators of Media Lab, which is a similar institution based at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in Cambridge.
MLE’s board of directors announced the project’s “voluntary solvent liquidation” after concluding that the two main shareholders, the Irish government and MIT, could not agree on a funding model.
The non-profit research institute – which served an international audience of fellows, teachers, students and researchers – opened in July 2000 while the dot-com boom was still thriving in Ireland. Some think it was a clear sign MLE was never built to last.
Critics now fault the lack of funding on projects that were too raw and unrealistic for major investment, along with a poorly planned partnership model.
While word of the center’s demise spread quickly between technologist enthusiasts, the Irish government and MLE stayed fairly quiet. A statement by the board of directors, which includes U2’s Bono and The Edge, explained the decision in some detail.
Citing their cooperation with numerous Irish universities and international companies, MLE thanked all who were involved at one stage or another.
Essentially an idea lab, think tank, and workshop rolled into one, MLE, together with its sister lab in Cambridge, aimed to help shape the wireless and mobile world we inhabit today.
Walter Bender, executive director of the MIT Media Lab, discussed the end of MLE.
“We had a lot of different goals in mind,” Bender said of the lab’s incarnation. “It turns out that the Atlantic is a lot bigger than the Pacific for us.”
Bender talked about how much more difficult it was to work with Europe than Asia, for example, where a Media Lab was in planning stages until the idea was yanked when MLE started running into trouble.
“We were looking to grow without the restraints of a campus,” he said.
Organizers attracted partnerships by touting MLE as “a place where world-class innovation occurs and important and exciting developments in design and technology are produced,” according to its business material.
Organizers hoped that by working with partners from all ends of industry, academia and society, MLE could draw on a wide variety of viewpoints to develop its activities.
However, the melding of art, technology and physical science proved too strange for some, and the eventual loss of cooperation between involved parties was a driving force behind MLE’s demise.
MLE didn’t come and go without some contribution. Prior to the announcement, it was a focus of the Lab to deal with what they dubbed “intimate interfaces,” the hinging of intimate and personal connections on technology and biometric sensing.
In engaging our bodies, senses and minds at the same time, researchers hoped to find ways to connect individuals with technology, and at the same time give individuals the power to connect more deeply with one another.
Many of the advances came on what they dubbed the haptic front, which involves sensory methods such as touch and machines. By utilizing technology to sense a person’s condition and intentions, they could create items that could work for humans and vice versa.
One such advance was a sensory-deprivation experiment called the Isophone, a cell phone device that guarantees concentration by blocking out all peripheral stimulation and distraction.
By creating a calming and sedate environment, the device, which is essentially a helmet that covers the users head and attached to three floating devices. The user simply floats at perfect equilibrium and does not have any sense except for what they are hearing over the cell phone.
Human connectedness was an ongoing theme at the Lab, and another project called the iBand grew on that idea.
The wristband is a wearable device for interpersonal information exchange through a handshake.
The project’s researchers found that with initial meetings being so imperative to further relationships, there was an easier way to exchange some information without having to discuss, and potentially forget information.
Infrared technology works to recall biographical and more information from a central database and deliver it to another person upon a first handshake.
It is that “brave new world” feel surrounding such projects that some blame for the Lab’s ultimate failure. Eventually relying solely on partnerships with established corporations proved difficult while companies started to coil back from the free spending of the dot-com boom.
“It was bad timing, too,” admits Bender, of opening up in 2000. “From the start we expected an uphill battle.”
A researcher who worked at the lab but did not want to be identified offered another clue as to the project’s failure.
“Apart from reasons intrinsic to MLE and its relationship to the Irish government, there are economic and social reasons that I believe make Dublin a much less attractive place for businesses,” the source said.
The avant-garde work didn’t help matters much, either. While the work being done was considered important, it was not vital in a market that was reeling over the collapse of a Celtic Tiger, only to come roaring back smarter about foreign investment and allocation.
No one faulted MLE for courting the best and the brightest. With MIT’s name and prominent researchers tossing out ideas and securing patents for some of the most innovative projects in decades, companies like AOL, AIB, BT, Ericsson and Intel all signed on as patrons.
The “partnership” role gave those bought into non-exclusive, royalty-free licenses to learn, share, and develop research.
The Lab touted the cost of partnership as little more than would cost to retain a senior scientist on their own research and development staff, and can supply the laboratory space and things needed.
Companies at first thought they could reap the rewards and use the Lab as a valuable R&D tool. Some 400 researchers ensured work was always humming along, but at what cost?
With spending that was reported to be nearly