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Taking Creative Risks

Why are some periods marked by bleak or antiseptic design and others by brilliant eruptions of creativity? Obviously, a prerequisite to great design is having great designers. But my theory is economic exuberance leads to irresistible design and risk-taking. Only when an economy is on the upswing do the usually timid and risk-averse leaders of institutions suddenly feel confident they must do more. Suddenly, as the stock market and employment cycle rebounds, evidence of an astonishing array of successful creative and functional designs is emerging in technology, electronics, and even architecture and fabrics.

It is fitting that this week the wildly innovative Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Labs (CSAIL) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology officially moved into their remarkable huge new complex, the Maria and Ray Stata Center, in Cambridge. After decades of architectural mediocrity and austerity, the campus of MIT is undergoing an astonishing transformation under the courageous leadership of University President Chuck Vest. Frank Gehry, architect known for the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, created another fanciful, energetic collage with his vision of the Stata Center.

Gehry's challenge was to create an inspiring place where some of the world's greatest engineers, roboticists, and scholars would interact. The Stata Center replaced an historic "temporary" MIT structure, Building 20, where radar was refined during the Second World War. Gehry's new environment, without question, is a visual treat and brilliant design success. The Stata Center's exterior, centered on traditional brick structures, seems to go awry above and about the quavering sides. New material and shapes collide and spread out; smaller white buildings are scrunched like Styrofoam coffee cups and flashing yellow and stainless steel panels cascade over the rambunctious mélange. However, the genius is the carefully deliberated interior, with cozy alcoves and walkways where people can meet, eat, and cogitate.

I was fortunate to tour the new lab with CSAIL Director Dr. Rodney Brooks and see some of the astounding research underway. An array of microphones picked up sounds of a crowd then an ingenious parallel computing scheme separated individual voices out of the cacophony. An expert in visualization developed a radical 3D graphic display to allow brain surgeons to save patients they would have abandoned in the past. Robots were clutching, investigating, navigating, and gesticulating. Hardhats swarmed around putting final touches on the building and one could feel how Professor Brooks' team of colleagues seemed ready to explode into their brand-new spaceship-like robotics lab still under construction. Gehry succeeded in designing a radical, flexible, unexpected place where fortuitous creativity is already flourishing.

Inspired by the Gehry building, I found remarkable new designs constantly leaping out at me (albeit on a far less grand scale): Adidas sent me their low-top over-the-top "intelligent running shoe" with computerized control that constantly adjusts itself. Oakley delivered their new "Thrust" jacket with an inflatable bladder air-lined insulation. Dyson, the gutsy little British vacuum inventor, dropped off a portable yellow canister machine that looks like a device from Ghostbusters: flamboyant yet compact. Sony presented their outrageously thin laptop, the VAIO X505, with a carbon nickel casing astonishingly light and strong. Finally, though still just prototypes, Mikey Sklar, of Electric-Clothing, dropped by with an ensemble of lighted clothing, including a handmade backpack that demands your attention.

Adidas-Salomon's Intelligent Shoe

Suddenly, after the long brutal winter, a new season of design and risk-taking is upon us. But these designs, flashy and unusual, each maintain a clear purpose. Adidas, already embroiled in a tough marketplace, unveiled its computer-assisted shoe after secret development for more than three years. With batteries and electronics in the sole, the runner can manually adjust the pressure of the sole hitting the pavement, or have the shoe adjust automatically to different running conditions. More astonishing than the electronic controls in the shoe is the devilishly clever mechanism inside the heel that rapidly adjusts to provide correct cushioning during the run. These intelligent running shoes will be available in December and will retail for $300.

Oakley's Thrust Jacket with Airvantage Adjustable Insulation

Another astonishing and functional design comes from Oakley, which has always pushed style to the edge. Their "Thrust" jacket and others have an optional inner-liner made of a unique fabric system, "Airvantage." Basically, using a tube attached to the liner, you inflate the liner with air to add additional insulation when needed. On a mountain hike and suddenly caught in a freezing downpour? This "Airvantage" liner adds a layer of high-tech warmth and comfort. Of course, you do look like you've gained a few pounds when the jacket is fully inflated… but comfort has its price. Speaking of price, the jacket I showed runs about $610 and there are several other jackets from Oakley that will also use the Airvantage adjustable insulation system .

Dyson DC11 Vacuum Cleaner

James Dyson is that British fellow that talks about his former "suction problems" relentlessly on television ads. He is also a maverick inventor of a line of dynamic newly designed vacuum cleaners that do pack a wallop. In addition, Dyson's hip design style has reenergized the traditionally stale houseware-space with a dramatic use of vibrant colors (bright yellows and reds) and outrageous sculptural shaping of plastic. When I first saw this latest creation, the DC 11, I was astounded at Dyson's audacity. The vacuum cleaner truly looks ripped from the "Ghostbusters" movie as if it were some sci-fi device with extreme powers.

The vacuum cleaner suction compared favorably to any other machine I tested it against (with the possible exception of a Miele unit) but it has other obvious advantages of a "best of breed" unit. First, all the parts and hoses, and attachments that litter the broom closet end with the DC11. Dyson designed the hose to curl around the bright yellow unit and to design the parts so they attach intelligently to the canister unit. Another blessing is that you can see (in the clear canister area) precisely what you are gathering… and there are no costly bags or additional filters to change. I subjected this unit to a rather extreme unintended drop-test on camera, and it still worked great. Too great, actually, as newsroom coworkers in various cubicles and edit bays were so happy to grab this it took more than an hour to get it back. The DC11 costs $499 and is available now.

Sony's VAIO x505

When I first saw a "bootleg" of Sony's X505 near-paper-thin laptop brought from Japan several months ago I could not believe my eyes. Sure it was beautiful but could a laptop have any true functionality weighing well under two pounds? Now that I've had a chance to play with the real McCoy, I continue to be astonished by this diminutive work of art. The biggest thing on this ultra-lightweight is a very bright 10.4-inch screen and a lithium-ion battery featuring at least 3 ½ hours of charge. But the case, made from a new carbon-nickel composite material, is perhaps the greatest innovation. The result is a heat dissipating, strong and ultra-light body. And what a delight! There's a 20-gig hard drive and a number of well-designed components and attachments: a 802.11 G wifi card and an Ethernet adapter dongle, etc. This computer will be available soon from Sony Wonder stores and will retail for about $3000.

Mikey Sklar's Electric Clothing

Speaking of design risks, I just came across a fascinating young designer's efforts to create custom-made electronic clothing - clothing that adds bright light and interesting interfaces to what once were humdrum threads. Mikey Sklar calls these garments "mods" (for modifications) and he's not alone. There are many designers, particularly at MIT, who have been exploring wonderful ways to make clothes tools to communicate. Watch out for Mikey's Electric Clothing in the future; the wild lights and crazy patterns are hard to miss.

By "Digital Dan" Dubno

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