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Professor Neil Gershenfeld has two excellent reasons to hope that sensors developed in the Media Laboratory alleviate the threat that activated automobile airbags pose to infants in rear-facing baby seats.
The reasons are Eli and Grace, twins born on October 10-not a bad birthday for the children of a digital thinker. They are the first-born of Professor Gershenfeld, head of the Media Lab's Physics and Media Group. The twins share their birthday with the Media Lab, which opened in 1985.
Professor Gershenfeld calls the baby seat project a "serendipitous" example of the unique ability of the Media Lab to use research from a fun experiment to solve a real-world problem. "Nobody set out with a business plan to develop a baby seat," he said.
The Physics and Media Group started exploring the relationship between electrical fields and the human body while developing sensors for a collaboration between cellist Yo-Yo Ma and Professor Tod Machover's group. Using this technology, Motorola Fellow Josh Smith created furniture that can "see" and Tom Zimmerman (now at IBM) devised a way to send data through the human body. Then research scientist Joe Paradiso worked with magicians Penn and Teller to develop the Spirit Chair, a device which literally channels a field through a performer's body to control music.
Phil Rittmueller, vice president for automotive technologies for NEC Technologies Inc., in Itasca, IL, saw a brief mention of these experiments in Wired and made an immediate connection. He called the lab and was invited to discuss the Spirit Chair.
Professor Gershenfeld and Mr. Smith worked closely with NEC to develop an inexpensive car seat sensor that could be depended upon to signal an airbag when to deploy-and when not to.
"They built the prototype," Mr. Rittmueller said, "and we moved it up a couple of ranks to make it applicable for automobiles." The process took about two years.
This technology, which could also be used to read a person's size and position to determine the most effective airbag action, has been presented to major automobile manufacturers around the world. "It is a reasonable and competitively priced safety item," said Mr. Rittmueller, who believes the auto makers could incorporate the technology for the 1999 or 2000 model years.
Professor Gershenfeld developed a special interest in the project as it unfolded-and his wife's due date approached. "It's gratifying to do something from which my children can benefit," he said.
The work was sponsored by the Media Lab's Things That Think Consortium.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on January 15, 1997.