Meetings with Remarkable People: Pranav Mistry of MIT Media Lab

This week I interviewed Pranav Mistry onstage at the Creativity World Forum in Oklahoma City.   Pranav was catapulted to fame last year by virtue of his talk at TED, titled “The Thrilling Potential of SixthSense Technology.”

His formal title is “research assistant and PhD candidate” in the Fluid Interfaces Group at MIT Media Lab.   That title is a spectacular understatement.    It’s like calling Thomas Edison a telegraph operator, or Albert Einstein a patent clerk.
Pranav is a prolific inventor.   His specialty is creating entirely new ways for humans to connect with machines and information on the digital network.   His breakthrough projects promise to transform the way we use (and think of) computers.
If Pranav’s vision is implemented widely, every flat surface in the real world will become a computing interface.   But even this is an understatement.
I was excited to meet him.   I had been interested in his work for a long time, and he did not disappoint.  In his modest and straightforward manner, he gave the audience a quick overview of his inventions.  In rapid sequence he showed a bewildering number of potential applications.
The throughline on his many inventions is simple but beguiling:  Pranav is focused on erasing the boundary between the digital world and the real world.
His inventions imbue real-world objects with a degree of intelligence and networking capability that are so surprising and unexpected that they sometimes seems spooky.
These include:
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SixthSense:  a wearable computer that allows us to use natural gestures to interact with invisible layer of data that surrounds every real world object.   This system does away with all of the components that add bulk to a laptop computer:  the screen, the keyboard, the hard drive and the huge battery pack to power it all.   Instead, it consists of a camera, a tiny projector and a mirror.  By tracking the user’s gestures in the real world, the portable computer projects relevant information on any nearby flat surface (window, newspaper, your hand), creating an instant link between the world that we can perceive with our five senses, and the invisible digital world of data that surrounds every object.
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Quickies:  Intelligent networked sticky notes that leverage RFID and ink recognition.   Dumb little notes made smart.  They can be searched, archived, retrieved.  And they can communicate by sending you reminders and updates.
Mouseless:  Pranav has eliminated the need for a mouse altogether by combining an IR laser and an IR camera to track hand gestures.   Mouseless gives you the full range of capabilities of a standard two-button PC computer mouse, including right click, without any hardware.  Just move your hand on the table surface as if you are clicking a mouse, and your computer responds.   Amazing.   And of course, your gestures would not be limited to the standard mouse commands, so this innovation opens up the possibilities for a range of new gestures as computer input.
Third Eye:  technology that enables different viewers to see different things on the same screen, so that a Hindi-speaker will see Hindi characters while an English speaker will see English language characters on the exact same screen at the same time.   It’s like the Rosetta stone for a multi-language world.
But the best part of his presentation was his decision to do a live demo in front of 2600 people of a new technology called Sparsh. This was a bold decision, because we were located deep inside the Cox Arena, surrounded by concrete walls and far from any 3G signal.
Before we went onstage, i asked him if he really wanted to take the risk of doing a live demo and he said, “Why not?  It’s just a demo.  If it doesn’t work, no problem.”
Sparsh makes it possible for a you to transfer digital objects from one device to another, using your own body as the conduit.   It’s such a simple concept that it is confusing.    It’s hard to believe.  You literally touch a photo on your cell phone and then touch the screen of the computer and — magically — the photo appears on your desktop.

It sounds simple, and it worked fine during our tech rehearsal, but naturally when Pranav did it live in front of two thousand people, he couldn’t connect to the 3G network.   A few minutes passed.   You could sense that the audience was getting restless.   And then he tried it again.   The second time was a charm.
The photo appeared magically on the screen of his laptop right where he placed his finger.  Like magic.
The entire arena burst into a thunderous roar of applause.
I was deeply impressed by this young inventor.   Pranav Mistry is a great example of the natural unquenchable curiosity that inspires creative breakthroughs.    Expect a lot more from this young man.

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