The MIT factor

celebrating 150 years of maverick genius

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has led the world into the future for 150 years with scientific innovations. Its brainwaves keep the US a superpower. But what makes the university such a fertile ground for brilliant ideas?

Ed Pilkington

A physics class at MIT in 1957

MIT students at a physics class take measurements in 1957. Photograph: Andreas Feininger/Time & Life Pictures

Yo-Yo Ma’s cello may not be the obvious starting point for a journey into one of the world’s great universities. But, as you quickly realise when you step inside the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), there’s precious little about the place that is obvious.

The cello is resting in a corner of MIT’s celebrated media lab, a hub of techy creativity. There’s a British red telephone kiosk standing in the middle of one of its laboratories, while another room is signposted: "Lego learning lab – Lifelong kindergarten."

The cello is part of the Opera of the Future lab run by the infectiously energetic Tod Machover. A renaissance man for the 21st – or perhaps 22nd – century, Machover is a composer, inventor and teacher rolled into one. He sweeps into the office 10 minutes late, which is odd because his watch is permanently set 20 minutes ahead in a patently vain effort to be punctual. Then, with the urgency of the White Rabbit, he rushes me across the room to show me the cello. It looks like any other electric classical instrument, with a solid wood body and jack socket. But it is much more. Machover calls it a "hyperinstrument", a sort of thinking machine that allows Ma and his cello to interact with one another and make music together.

"The aim is to build an instrument worthy of a great musician like Yo-Yo Ma that can understand what he is trying to do and respond to it," Machover says. The cello has numerous sensors across its body, fret and along the bow. By measuring the pressure, speed and angle of the virtuoso’s performance it can interpret his mood and engage with it, producing extraordinary new sounds. The virtuoso cellist frequently performs on the instrument as he tours around the world.

When Machover was developing the instrument, he found that the sound it made was distorted by Ma’s hand as it absorbed electric current flowing from the bow. Machover had a eureka moment. What if you reversed that? What if you channelled the electricity flowing from the performer’s body and turned it into music?

Armed with that new idea, Machover designed an interactive system for Prince that the rock star deployed on stage at Wembley Stadium a few years ago, conjuring up haunting sounds through touch and gesture. Later, two of Machover’s students at the media lab had the idea of devising an interactive game out of the technology. They went on to set up a company called Harmonix, based just down the road from MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts, from which they developed Rock Band and Guitar Hero.

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