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May 2004

Researchers in residence

MIT graduate students tackle problems in streaming media in unique residency program at HP Labs


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Students use a whiteboard to work out a problem.

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The residency gives students a chance to work on real-world problems.

by Simon Firth

Industrial research wasn't what Charles Swannack expected.

When the MIT graduate student arrived at HP Labs for a two-week residency recently, he'd expected to find innovation strictly constrained by business interests. Instead, he was impressed by the freedom that HP researchers have to follow their own intellectual interests.

"There's a lot of creativity flowing around HP Labs," remarks Swannack, now back studying in Cambridge, Mass.

Swannack was one of four MIT students selected to be a 2004 MIT Researcher in Residence at HP’s Palo Alto (Calif.) Labs. The program, now in its third year, offers MIT graduate students an intensive two-week stay at the lab, where they work alongside HP staff researchers.

Tackling real-world problems

Allowing bright young students like Swannack to see how HP Labs really works is one aim of the Researcher in Residence program. But it is designed to do much more than that.

For one thing, it offers the students a chance to display their creativity. Swannack, for example, used his residency to explore some tough problems surrounding video-on-demand media streaming, trying to minimize distortion during a broadcast by using certain error-correction schemes.

All the students pursue their own research projects while at HP Labs. After a week of exploring topics with Labs researchers, they select a particular problem to investigate under the direction of one or two Labs staff members.

That makes it different from the majority of programs that place students in industrial labs, where they are typically asked to tackle relatively menial research problems, says MIT Professor Greg Wornell.

"They go to HP to think about some of the problems that matter in that environment," Wornell says. "Setting that tone makes a difference in the style of interaction and the way students approach it. The students tend to think about these matters long after they come back because they don't view it as just a job."

The HP-MIT alliance

Wornell is a professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and the MIT faculty lead for the Researcher in Residence program. Along with HP’s Susie Wee, he heads up the Center for Wireless Networking at MIT, created by HP in 2002 to bring together researchers from the two institutions for collaborative research aimed at revolutionizing the design of wireless systems and the mobile appliances that use them.

The Researcher in Residence program and the Center for Wireless Networking are just two of the collaborative projects launched under an innovative, five-year, $25 million alliance between HP and MIT that seeks to redefine the nature of industrial-academic research.

Although projects in the alliance span a variety of subjects -- from pervasive computing to inkjet printing to digital asset management -- students in the Researchers in Residence program come to HP to work mostly in the area of wireless networking and streaming media.

"We are challenging the assumption made in today's network design that system layers should be treated independently," says Wee, who leads the Multimedia Communications and Networking department at HP Labs. "We're investigating interlayer optimization technologies that work across the physical, network and application layers to make break-throughs in performance for next-generation wireless networks."

Considering thesis topics

For Charles Swannack, who is finishing up his master's degree work at MIT, the HP residency was also a chance to think about where he might direct his PhD research.

"In academics there are a huge set of problems,” he says. “Knowing the ones that are actually of interest to industry was one of the main reasons I went (to Palo Alto)."

Fellow Researcher in Residence Guy Weichenberg also used the residency to explore possible PhD topics. While at HP, he worked with Labs researcher John Apostolopoulos to investigate the impact of different transmission channel models on distortion for streaming media over the Internet.

Experiencing industrial research

Raul Blazquez, who is nearing the end of his PhD, says the program gave him a broader perspective on problems he's exploring in digital electronic circuits -- the physical base layer of a wireless communication design.

"You get to know what kind of information the people who are not working in circuits need from people like me, or what kind of problems they'd like me to solve," he says.

The fourth Researcher in Residence this year (the program can accommodate up to seven students depending on the availability of Labs staff) was Ashish Khisti, who was returning to the program for a second time. He worked with HP Labs researcher Mitch Trott on frequency planning and resource allocation for wireless networks.

Khisti, too, cited the benefit of tackling real-world problems.

"We are taking abstract formulations and applying them to concrete engineering settings," he says.

New ideas, new perspectives

It’s not just the MIT students who benefit from their visit to HP Labs.

“Enthusiastic young researchers come with new ideas and without preconceived notions," says researcher Trott. "They can really challenge a lot of the assumptions you're making about your own problems."

Along with the opportunities the residency brings for fruitful future collaborations, Trott welcomes the chance to simply expose some of the brightest of the next generation of researchers to the work of HP Labs.

"HP really is the place to be in some of these research areas," he says.

He’s happy, too, if the students' time at HP influences the course of their PhD research. It's a bonus for the company, Trott says, if students choose thesis problems of interest to HP.

More to explore

MIT’s Wornell can attest to the effect the Researcher in Residence program has had on research at MIT.

"Entire lines of inquiry have sprung up and been pursued here that definitely wouldn’t have been pursued otherwise," he says.

Although both sides agree that they will need to regularly reassess how the program is working, no one is looking for it to end anytime soon.

"We haven’t even come close to exploring all the areas of common interest to us," says Trott. "It's safe to say we’ll be continuing this for some time."

Adds Wornell: "This collaboration is as good as any industrial academic partnership that I’ve been involved with."

It’s also become quite a desirable assignment, he notes. "It’s got a certain cache so the best students want to apply."


Related links

» MIT Center for Wireless Networking

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From left to right the students are Ashish Khisti, Charles Swannack, Guy Weichenberg, and Raul Blazquez.

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