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Linking Techies Coast to Coast

Suzanne Morze

ONLY CONNECT: Twin cafés, here and at MIT, help students meet and chat spontaneously.

By Helen Anderson

Bending time may still be the stuff of science fiction, but bending space is now as simple as sitting down to eat lunch. At the Forbes Family Café in the Huang Engineering Center on the Stanford campus, a "wormhole" unveiled in November connects to a café of the same name 3,000 miles away at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Each side of the portal takes the form of a video camera mounted on a large screen television placed in front of a table. Two plexiglass domes—one embedded in the table and one positioned overhead—pick up and emit sounds, respectively, and give the setup a sort of retro-futuristic look. (Think: "Cone of Silence" from Get Smart.)

"Aesthetically, it looks odd," concedes the wormhole's designer Kevin Brown, an MIT graduate. But he settled on the dome as the basis of his design "because it works so well as an acoustic lens"—essential for creating a video-conferencing system in a noisy café. The partial-sphere shape focuses incoming sound at three specific points around the table without disturbing others in the surrounding area. And the 90-degree angle between the two domes avoids an audio feedback loop, without the need to resort to echo-cancellation methods.

The project, funded on MIT's end by a gift from Bert, MS '67, and Candace, '68, Forbes, and on Stanford's end by money from the building's general fund, encourages conversations between students at both universities in an informal setting. "The fact that it's 3,000 miles away makes it a little less intimidating to sit down across from a complete stranger," says associate director of facilities and planning Brian Carilli, who came up with the idea to link the two cafés. It's hard to say what, ultimately, will come out of it, he says. "It could be collaboration. It could be romance. I saw a guy and a gal talking the other day, and I don't think they were talking about science. The idea is just to connect the world a little."


Helen Anderson, '14, is a Stanford intern.

 

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