A Tribute to Glorianna Davenport


Paula Aguilera

Paula Aguilera

At the MIT Media Lab's 2022 Fall Meeting, Lab director Dava Newman and professors Tod Machover and Joseph Paradiso spoke during a tribute to Glorianna Davenport, a founding member of the Media Lab and longtime contributor to the Lab community. Read Newman's introductory speech and watch the video recording below.

"Glorianna Davenport has been a dedicated member of the MIT community for over 40 years. In 1977, she started her career as a lecturer in the Department of Architecture’s Film/Video Section. After the founding of the MIT Media Lab in 1985, Glorianna established and led the Interactive Cinema group (later renamed the Media Fabrics group) at the Media Lab in 1987. The work of the group represents the synergy between research and teaching that was pioneered and continues to drive innovation here at the Lab. 

As one of the founding members of the Media Lab, Glorianna worked with Lab co-founders Nicholas Negroponte and Jerry Wiesner, as well as faculty members Seymour Papert and Tod Machover, here with us today. Glorianna and Professor Muriel Cooper were among the women who helped shape the early years of the Media Lab, before faculty members like Roz Picard, Pattie Maes, and Cynthia Breazeal joined the Lab. We’re honored to recognize you today, Glorianna, for your incredible vision and work.

Trained as a sculptor and documentary filmmaker, Glorianna is a pioneer in interactive media, providing contributions and innovations in film, video, digital media, and new ways of storytelling. At her work’s core is the belief that aesthetic expression and storytelling are central to human development, and that, throughout time, storytellers have shaped their work to fit the technological medium of the era. In the years leading up to the birth of the internet, Glorianna’s research envisioned dynamic future narratives, engaging the roles of authors, audiences, and machinery in collaborative construction of meaning and experience.

The concept of using video as a tool for understanding one’s environment has been a key element of Glorianna’s work through the years. One of the most notable projects by Glorianna and her students is the “Elastic Charles," an interactive portrait and time-lapse journey of the Charles River that combined historical, thematic, and ecological perspectives to demonstrate how video and computers can create a new narrative and documentary medium. The project’s  early effort to put video on computer screens led to a 1992 patent, “Method and facility for dynamic video composition and viewing,” frequently cited as prior art for digital video codecs becoming increasingly integrated into chipsets for computers and phones. One of the lead students supervised by Glorianna, Hans Peter Brondmo, and a collaborator built on this development, founding one of the first startup companies to evolve out of the Media Lab. 

When Glorianna retired from MIT in 2008, she had advised over 120 students; in Media Lab fashion, these students have traversed the world and shaped careers that span entrepreneurial, academic, artistic, and media production efforts—they’ve built companies and innovated in academia, industry, and the arts.

But her involvement with the Media Lab didn’t end in 2008. At this point she began running Tidmarsh Farms—a former cranberry farm in Plymouth, Massachusetts, that soon became the largest freshwater wetland restoration in New England. In 2011 she founded Living Observatory, a nonprofit learning collaborative that focuses on documenting and studying the arc of change in large, restored wetlands. Through these projects, she’s worked closely with Professor Joe Paradiso and the Responsive Environments research group, providing a place in the wild for students to explore how media and sensor systems can extend our experience of and in the natural world. Glorianna, thank you for your ground-breaking work, for being a leading member of our community, and lifting up future generations."

– Dava Newman, Director of the MIT Media Lab

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