USC to launch social-technology laboratory

USC is starting a social-technology laboratory with a focus on the segments of digital culture that are expected to bring in the big bucks.

The Annenberg Innovation Lab, which the university is announcing Wednesday, will harness expertise from professors and students across a variety of disciplines — including its cinema, media and engineering programs — to design software prototypes to run on digital books, televisions, computers and mobile devices.

"The idea is to think about certain areas that are changing especially rapidly," said Jonathan Taplin, the lab's director and a professor at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

By focusing on emerging-media technology, the lab will be working in areas where good ideas can become billion-dollar industries. The lab is explicit about its symbiotic relationship with business, noting that in addition to being a technology incubator, it will function as "a bridge to outside businesses that will apply innovations developed at the school."

As with other university media laboratories — the MIT Media Lab, for one — USC's new lab will rely extensively on corporate sponsorships. The program has already made deals with Verizon Wireless, IBM Corp., Levi Strauss & Co. and Mattel Inc., which have collectively chipped in $1 million to get the program started. The lab's leaders expect to announce several more sponsorships from large technology, media and consumer firms within a month.

The lab's early projects will tackle the evolution of e-books, the rise of Internet-based television systems such as GoogleTV, geo-location systems that allow mobile phones to reveal detailed information about users' physical surroundings, and helping journalists navigate the growing volume of online data.

Taplin said the lab has already drafted about 25 faculty members from USC's Viterbi School of Engineering, School of Cinematic Arts, Marshall School of Business and the Annenberg media program.

The professors already signed on include Henry Jenkins, a noted digital media scholar and creator of MIT's Comparative Media Studies program; Dmitri Williams, who studies Internet video gaming communities; Jonathan Aronson, an international economics professor; Scott Fisher, a professor at the cinema school who has worked extensively on virtual reality; and Roberto Suro, a journalism and public policy professor.

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