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MIT staff blogger Ben Jones

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!)

5 responses to “The Next Generation Of College Campus Tours?”

  1. Hunter '11 says:

    Ooo, I really like this idea of interviewing alums. It gives the prefrosh a better idea of what type of people come out of MIT, but it even helps the current students decide on what they should do and how to do it.

    Thanks Ben, I hope to see more interviews ^.^ Maybe you can interview the Clocky girl? (Did she graduate?) That would be awesome.

  2. Isshak says:

    While we are on interviews ^^, I had mine and it was great ! So much fun and all, I was sad when it ended. Seriously people, relax ! This is acutally the best advice you can get !

  3. Anonymous says:

    To answer the questions posed in the answer to the last question (wow, word jumble), I would say the idea of digital tour guides is definitely interesting. But I think I would miss the connection with a human tour guide. When I toured MIT, what I most enjoyed hearing about were the personal experiences my tour guide had during his time as a student there. My iPod won’t be able to tell me about what hacks it participated in or how its intro to physics professor started breakdancing during the electromagnetic unit.

    I’m not sure if I’m making any sense, but what I’m trying to say is that while the idea of digitalizing tourism is definitely innovative, I would miss interaction with real, live people. =)

  4. Vytautas says:

    Vision to digital tourism: A PDA style gadget with GPS, Wikipedia(narrated and/or written) and Google Maps. merged all into one. Nice…

  5. Lionel says:

    Hi Ben,

    I just wanted to ask you something.

    I just happened to look at the posts on CC. There are people there who post a long list of stats about themselves. It sometimes look like they have engineered themselves from childhood to look good on their college application. Even worst, there are people who reply to these posts saying that their stats may *not* be good enough for MIT.

    What happens to students who did not have like a gazillion clubs at school to choose from?

    What about those who thought that spending some of their time with orphan children was more important than adding another AP to their list?

    I come from a very simple CBSE school in the UAE.
    My school cant afford to buy us expensive kits for robot building, so we don’t make it to international competitions. But on the other hand I have used every small opportutnity to the maximum and made best use if whatever I was provided with from my school.

    I mean does a genuine person stand a chance as compared to someone who has engineered their personality to look good on their application?

    It does seem a little bit discouraging…but yeah I am still going to apply anyway.

    I just wanted to hear from you on this topic, which seems to be relevant and important.