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Meet the New Faculty: Matt Reynolds

Making home technology to meet needs

By Marla Vacek Broadfoot

Durham, NC -- Talk to Matt Reynolds about his work and chances are he'll quote his favorite piece of trivia exemplifying the value of technology in our lives. Here it is: By the year 2005, more transistors -- tiny electrical gadgets found in everything from toasters to computers - had been created by human hands than grains of rice had been farmed.

"Clearly, we already live among the machines," he says. "Now we need to develop ways to make the interaction between man and machine more meaningful."

Reynolds, previously a senior research scientist at Georgia Tech, joins Duke this year as an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at the Pratt School of Engineering. His work centers on a technology called RFID - or radio frequency identification. Allies in World War II used this type of technology to identify airplanes as friend or foe. More recently, these tiny self-adhesive RFID tags have been applied to passports, library books, bottles of prescription pills and even pets.

Developing RFID-based technologies that make homes more accessible to people with disabilities, such as the blind or those with movement disorders or mobility impairment, is one goal of Reynolds' research. His work will center on Duke's Home Depot Smart Home, a 6,000-square-foot dorm and research laboratory where students will design "smarter" technologies to improve entertainment, health care and energy conservation in the home.

The Smart Home at Duke is unusual because students were the driving force behind the project, Reynolds says. Other smart home research facilities exist around the country, in places such as Georgia Tech, the University of Washington, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), but none of them include a resident population of students, living and working within the building.

"The best part about Duke's Smart Home is that students have to eat their own dog food: If they develop a new technological tool, they have to live with it," Reynolds says. Graduate students from Reynolds' lab will be working on projects, such as creating robots to help the disabled navigate through the space and manipulate objects within the home, alongside Pratt Fellow undergrads, and, of course, Smart Home residents.

"The ability to work hands-on with bright students who want to learn about an area of research that is closely tied to mine is very intriguing," Reynolds says. "These interactions should motivate my own research and help the students come up with great new ideas."

Reynolds earned a Ph.D. from the famed MIT Media Lab, where he was a Motorola fellow, as well as degrees in electrical engineering and computer science from MIT. He also co-founded ThingMagic Inc., a small company that creates tools for tracking parcels, objects and goods in the supply chain for large businesses such as Wal-Mart, Target and Best Buy.

Given his background, you might peg Reynolds as the type of person who fills his home with the latest gadgets and gizmos. However, he says he chooses to be buried in books rather than gear during his off hours.

He does, however, keep a workshop in his house where he builds pieces of interactive art. In 2004, he helped create an art installation for the Olympics in Athens. One particular piece, "White Noise/White Light," created in collaboration with architect Meejin Yoon of MIT, was housed at the base of the Acropolis and involved interactive stalks of fiber optic wheat that lit up and created the sound of wind when people walked through.

"It was an interesting and uplifting experience to work on a project designed to be appreciated by such a large number of visitors," he says.

His art and his work are not unalike. In both, Reynolds creates objects that can perceive, interact and respond to people. When he gets to Duke, Reynolds hopes to connect with clinicians and hear about the needs of their patients so he can translate them into technologies that could help them at home.

"Technology in the home should be more than the latest game console - it should be personal and adaptable to fit the needs of people regardless of their abilities or disabilities," Reynolds says.