The Next Generation Of College Campus Tours? by Ben Jones
My interview with Michael Epstein '04, covering his MIT experience and the genesis of his company, Untravel Media.
I’m hoping to make a habit out of occasionally interviewing members of the MIT community who have started companies or created products that you may find useful. At least in the beginning, I’ll focus on companies and products that are directly relevant to the college search process.
(You guys know how I feel about the thousands of vendors who bombard you with useless stuff – so rest assured that the folks I feature have been screened carefully by yours truly. :-)
My first interviewee is Michael Epstein, who graduated from MIT with a Masters in Comparative Media Studies and then went on to create Untravel Media with three other MIT grads. If you visited MIT in early September, perhaps you even used one of their mobile media tours to explore the Stata Center.
I enjoyed talking with Michael about his vision for the next generation of college campus tours, as well as his MIT experience.
What led you to MIT?
I went to grad school for a Masters in Comparative Media Studies. Basically, there is no other. It’s a unique program where I could pursue sociological questions around media development while learning how to craft cutting edge media.
What kind of student do you think makes a good match to MIT?
MIT students always have a really cool card in the hole. I.e., a theoretical mathematician who has memorized passages of 13th century Sufi poetry; a shy digital designer who can really break dance, a philosopher and tennis star. It’s always great to see the layers peel back when you meet people here.
Tell us a bit about your experience as an MIT student. What did you do outside of class? Who were your favorite profs?
My program involved a lot of untraditional coursework at MIT – “Interactive Narrative” class, anthropology, Literature of Melville and Toni Morrison, Interactive Museum design at Harvard. The humanities at MIT are what you make of them. World class professors, experts in their field. One area that seems to be taking off right now is video game design and social media. Many “wicked smaht” programmers and engineers are jumping on board heavily-funded projects to make video games education and create digital applications that involve community.
Tell us a bit about Untravel Media – what it is, how it began, etc.
I had to write a thesis for my program, and the profs – from day 1 – tend to scare the sh*&$ out of you, telling you that you have to work a lot to finish it (not like a science thesis, this is 100-200 pages of individual research).
I wrote a thesis about bringing a literary voice to mobile technology development. It turned out to be a job description for what I’ve done for the past three years. I realized that this theoretical idea had practical applications in the tourism industry, in which you have many people walking around with portable media devices looking for the stories of the places they visit. I developed a mobile narrative technology and production technique in Venice, Italy after I graduated and then entered a business plan in the MIT 100K competition in 2006. We got to the semi-finals and then started this company, Untravel Media that creates interactive mobile tours for cultural organizations and is beta testing a publishing tool that allows anyone to create mobile narratives on live Yahoo! maps.
The core mission is still humanities-based: tell complex stories on mobile devices that deepen travelers experiences and understanding of the places they visit.
How has your MIT education influenced/helped you in regard to Untravel Media? Do you feel that MIT prepared you well to be an entrepreneur?
Yes, there are tons of people running around campus with business ideas, and most of these people are more doers than talkers. There is also a nice support network (venture mentoring service, business plan competition, Sloan business school, etc.) but there is a bit of a chasm from lab to running a successful company. That is, there is a lot of solid R&D, and even funding opportunities around campus, but getting something up and going is still pretty much an individual activity. My advice for entrepreneurs is to take courses, use IAP (January break) time to do externships with various companies, and start looking into grant opportunities (we have an NSF SBIR grant) and put together an experienced managerial team.
Tell us about some of the recent ways in which Untravel Media has worked with MIT.
I give guest lectures every semester to non-linear narrative and digital poetry classes. We built a tour of the EECS building, the Stata Center, which was delivered for Reunion weekend at MIT in June. We also have a group of MIT mentors from the Venture Mentoring Service. And, when you graduate, a lot of your friends are MIT folks. It will never completely go away!
Are you interested in feedback from prospective and current MIT students regarding Untravel Media? What sorts of questions do you have for them?
Imagine you could have amazingly good interactive college content on your cell phone that guides you around where you go to school or are looking to go to college. What would that content be like? Who would be speaking? Where would it take you? (Research facility tours, architecture, nightlife guides, Greek system guides, dorm room tours, famous hacks?) What is your preferred way to the get the tour: on your smartphone (video streaming), Ipod (iTunes), rental device (information office), etc.? What do you think of the concept of the business? What specifically is good/bad about it from your perspective? (If you respond, please also tell me whether you’re a current or prospective student, and where you’re from!)