Stata café wormhole creates portal to Palo Alto

Innovative device facilitates transcontinental chats between MIT and Stanford

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Speakers placed in a plastic dome above the table of the wormhole direct audio to students at MIT from those at Stanford.
ethan a. solomon—The Tech
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Kevin L. Brown ’88 (left) sits in MIT’s Forbes Family Café in Building 32, and demonstrates the new wormhole by talking to Neal Soderquist (right), who is sitting in Stanford University’s Forbes Family Café.
Ethan A. Solomon—The Tech

Getting to Stanford is as easy as walking to the Stata Center, thanks to the Institute’s newly installed “wormhole.”

The Forbes Family Café in the Stata Center now has a real-time communications portal to Stanford, consisting of a high resolution video camera; a clear, vivid screen; and a set of three highly advanced speakers and microphones. Connecting the wormhole to Stanford is a 1 megabit per second down and up stream and a low latency connection (between 100 ms and 200 ms) to keep the conversations between students and faculty of the universities from lagging — in other words, the Stata Center basically has a supercharged Skype setup.

But what’s the use of this? How does this differ from the standard laptop Skype conversation? “This is more socially interactive than doing it on a laptop,” explained Kevin L. Brown ’88, of Brown Innovations and the man behind the acoustics of the wormhole. “It can be a casual gathering kind of atmosphere.”

Although videoconferencing technology has been around for years, the wormhole presents a unique acoustic challenge due to the noisy cafe environment.

Indeed, creating the wormhole wasn’t an easy feat. “In this very challenging environment, you can’t just use a microphone,” Brown said. As the Forbes Café is a public place, there is a considerable amount of noise in the environment; a normal microphone setup would pick up the noise, and speakers would either contribute to the noise or the audio output would be unclear. Also, a low-resolution video chat, like those conducted on Skype, wouldn’t be clear enough to simulate a real life lunch or breakfast conversation — one of the main purposes of the wormhole.

The Tandberg videoconferencing unit, a $15,000 device described by Brown as “the brains behind the connection”, takes care of the necessary software and power needed to run the wormhole. The three microphones and speakers were delivered by Brown Innovations.

The wormhole consists of a dome on top and a dome on bottom to help filter the voices from the noise in the environment. “The dome embedded in the table contains three separate dedicated microphones, one for each person sitting at the table. When you’re talking, you have this whole surface area that is collecting your voice in this very noisy environment and redirecting all of those sound waves to your specific [microphone], which makes it incredibly efficient and highly directional.” Brown explained. The overhead dome contains three speakers and redirects the sound waves directly to the users of the wormhole.

Using a software system called Smart Volume technology, the volume of the system will increase automatically in adjustment to the background noise, but not to the point of disturbing surrounding tables. “We wanted it to be just loud enough to be understood and heard”, Brown said. The type of audio and video compression will adapt as the connection speed changes.

Upon its opening, the wormhole will be open to anyone and everyone 24/7, with no login, approval or moderation required. For MIT students, this could mean cranking out their next p-set with newfound friends or old buddies from the Pacific. The future of the growing connection between the two universities awaits.

According to Brown, Bert Forbes ’66 and his wife, Candace, a Stanford graduate — the namesakes of the Forbes Café — are interested in bringing wormholes to other universities; Brown hopes to see this technology implemented in chains like McDonald’s and Starbucks, so that users can select a location and converse with friends around the globe over coffee.

For now, though, dates through the wormhole can only occur in Cambridge and Palo Alto. Expect to be able to grab some coffee with your friends in Cali within the next few weeks.