The punk of Olten reinvents his life at the MIT Media Lab

TECHNOLOGY Stefan Marti works on the minicomputer-camera of the journalists of tomorrow.


PIERRE RUETSCHI (rough translation courtesy by Altavista)

"It is the only place where I am taken seriously with an insane project." Stefan Marti, 34 years, has just finished his master's degree at the MIT Media Lab and aims at the doctorate. And he intends to carry out a dream that he says to have in him since his childhood. To create a miniaturized helicopter, equipped with a camera, controlled by voice. A tool intended for the TV reporters of tomorrow, but not only. The former punk and musician of Olten who once had a mohawk hair do remakes his new life at the Media Lab (see our supplement Telecom '99). "In Switzerland, I always tried to find out what will be in the future. Here, I am in the future, and I contribute to develop it. I can influence, to a certain amount, the world as it will be in ten years," says Stefan Marti, radiant, converted with the "positivism" that oxygenates the laboratory of Nicholas Negroponte.

With or without tie

Marti always liked to do things a little differently. Thus in very conservative Olten, he formed the punk band Miscast with two buddies, having a destroy look. "It was a reaction. A way of testing the others," he says. On Sundays, he was going to the church to cap his peak. After the high school, he changed his haircut, switched to techno and studied eight years psychology at the University of Bern, with a specialization in telecommunications. In parallel, his talents as a sound engineer gave him the possibility to tour around with bands all over Europe. When he was looking for an employment in his specialized field of telecommunications, he made his offers to the UBI-Lab, the research laboratory of the UBS. The interview turns out unsuccessful. "I had however put a tie. They did not like it. Two years ago, it is the director of UBI-Lab who asked to visit me here at MIT. Things had changed. Because I was at MIT, I was taken seriously."

Stefan Marti had been just engaged from 70 candidates as video editor for the Swiss German TV when he decides to try his chance with the Media Lab. "I sought a true challenge. When I heard about the Media Lab, I suddenly knew what I wanted." His application was accepted only on the second try, after a series of interviews at the Lab. For the former punk, sound engineer, psychologist and video editor who undertook his innumerable activities from the house of his parents, the cut was radical. "I arrived here in autumn 1997 with a purse of 30 000 dollars for schooling and 1500 dollars per month to live. Suddenly, everything that happened in Switzerland did not count anymore."

Active Messenger

Stefan Marti, wearing a ponytail today, says he is perfectly integrated into the culture of the laboratory. His office is populated with electronic gadgets that he used for his diploma work. The telephone rings. It is his agent, virtual, of course, which calls him. The agent noticed that he had not read his email recently, and at least one of the last incoming email messages was significant enough to disturb Stefan and to read it him on the phone. This "Active Messenger" is the result of his diploma work. According to various worked out criteria, the agent establishes priorities of distribution. If it detects a message from "John Doe" who has an appointment with Stefan in one hour (checking Stefan's calendar), it will give it a high priority and will try to deliver it by the most effective means according to the timetable of Stefan: telephone at the office, the house, pager, cellular telephone, etc. "This technology is already very advanced in industry. It will be available on a broad scale in little more than one year," explains the Swiss.

Army interested

With his flying camera (or paparazzi mobile television robot), he aims to more remote horizons. The concept: a camera mounted on a computer controlled helicopter with four rotors of less than thirty centimeters in diameter total, controlled by voice commands. A journalist can ask the camera to position itself two meters in front of the face of a person interviewed whereas this one advances in the street. Several cameras can be positioned thus by voice commands. A system that could be also used to cover concerts, athletics meetings, or other demonstrations. The greatest difficulty is to stabilize such a small helicopter. A researcher of the American army at MIT is interested in the same project. "Which poses an ethical problem to me. Personally, I create a tool whose development is based on the respect for people. If the camera gets annoying, one must be able to send it away. The army is interested to use it for street battle, to penetrate in houses."

Stefan, according to the habits at the Media lab, is not satisfied to assemble the parts of the technological puzzle, but he integrates it in the social context. "There is no pigeonholing here at the Lab." Before even the first prototype is built, Marti plans air bags to prevent the minicameras damaging anything if they would crash. His camera must acquire an ethical conscience. "Eventually, I want it to learn multi cultural moral values."


Original French text © Tribune de Genève - Edipresse Publications s.a.