Ground Zero


Back in April, Columbia University applied for a key $10 million National Science Foundation grant to reshape the school’s technology program–and potentially the city itself. The New York new media industry has exploded to almost $5.7 billion in revenues, but those profits hinge on surplus dollars from advertising budgets. By creating a digital storytelling and engineering hub called the New Media Technology Center, Columbia hopes to draw world-class talent into a nexus of hardware and software innovation, a kind of answer to MIT’s Media Lab.

While the result of the process won’t become public until March, recent augurs aren’t good: no NSF representatives have dropped by for the required site visit, all Columbia contacts quickly defer inquiries to the program director, and– as if to prepare grad students for a shriveling research teat–a flyer prominently displayed on the front door of the Shapiro Engineering Research facility reads, ”Starting a high tech company? It sure beats a real job.”

But perhaps the solution to New York’s technology development gap isn’t a massive new Ph.D. Parnassus. While the NSF grant is important, it’s not life or death: the city already has a handful of booming technology research labs, churning out patents and companies with rising speed–they just have yet to hit big. As the biggest player in the city, Columbia’s Innovation Enterprise office, which helps create businesses from academic projects, counts 13 companies spun off from patents developed at the university.

As behooves the city’s oldest university, Columbia is thinking largely long-term with its mountain of technology, and that might be risky. The impressive Augmented Reality unit–designed by associate professor of computer science Steve Feiner, professor of architecture Tony Webster, and two students–rests somewhere between immersive virtual reality and the Zagat Survey, providing instructions and details about the user’s local area through goggles where information is projected. But even Feiner admits it will take about 10 to 15 years for the product to reach the market. Who knows where VR technology coming out of the private industry will be by that point?

Meanwhile, one of the city’s rising research stars is NYU’s Center for Advanced Technology, a tiny, feisty four-year-old lab that plays the funky start-up to Columbia’s more staid, stoic IBM. NYU’s lab, one of 13 different CAT ventures across New York State, is funded by $1 million from the State Science and Technology Foundation and another million from private industry. (They did not apply for the $10 million NSF grant because NYU does not have a strong engineering program, generally a prerequisite for the funds.) It’s the kind of place where one of the head research scientists has an eyebrow ring and can’t make a morning meeting because he’s got to go to the gym. The CAT lab staff is fiercely entrepreneurial, prepared to make cold calls to get its technologies out into the market.

Run by Academy Award–winning software engineer Ken Perlin (whose texture-mapping work is now the industry standard), CAT is poised to become a technology-licensing engine. Jimm Burris, CAT’s ”technology transfer” officer, puts it bluntly: ”We’re product-focused.” In addition to vetting dozens and dozens of patentable advances from the medical and computer science departments, CAT, in conjunction with NYU’s Media Research Lab, is leading a two-pronged charge on two shibboleths of the industry, Windows and the video game Tomb Raider.

”I’m interested in moving beyond the Windows standard, and one plausible answer is 3-D,” says CAT project scientist Jon Meyer. ”But I don’t want to be reading e-mail in 3-D.” To challenge the Microsoft metaphor, Perlin’s PAD interface software lets users zoom into documents for information, allowing each single character to contain its own screen of information ad infinitum. It gives the sensation of falling into the screen or having the power to pass a magnifying glass over a document to reveal new layers of information beneath. ”Nesting” content this way stands to radicalize our understanding of the desktop.

CAT’s other major initiative, IMPROV, has clear potential for the video game industry. Currently, rendered bodies like Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft move through redundant animation cycles with limited range of motion. But the IMPROV software gives polygonal figures–avatars–a huge boost in sophistication. Users can drive the animations’ movements in new ways, making them pirouette or swing-kick. When left alone, the animations could even busy themselves by tapping their feet and smoking.

Essentially, the center is about turning NYU’s engineers into entrepreneurs and vice versa. ”We’re the bridge between a complex university and a complex business world,” says Burris–just don’t call what he does public relations. ”Universities don’t do marketing. We call it ‘development.”’