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Media Lab Europe, the Dublin-based research facility based on the MIT Media Lab in Massachusetts, is to close down.

The move comes after reports of financial difficulty for the institution, which relied on government support and private investment to keep afloat. At one time, it was hoped that the lab would be able to become self-sustaining, with revenue coming from patents, licenses and continual private sector support.

According to one estimate, Media Lab Europe needed some €50m to remain afloat - funding which the Irish government, the private sector and MIT would not put up. The Irish government poured €35m into MLE, when it was set up in 2000, and companies such as Orange, Eircom, AOL and Ericsson, subsequently contributed millions more.

It is understood that the facility, which employs almost 90 researchers and administrators, will wind down over the next few months. The lab wis headed by Simon Jones, who took the job following the departure of Dr Rudy Burger in 2002.

Over the years, researchers envisioned and designed speakers that could be implanted into teeth, gadgets that measured passive smoke inhalation, and "digital butterflies" that helped children to communicate in new ways -- just a few of the marvellous projects at the lab. However, few MLE projects offered immediate commercial prospects.

The closure of the high-profile venture will also be a blow to the government's plan to develop the Liberties and Coombe areas of Dublin into a hive of digital media activity. Media Lab Europe was set to be the psychological centre of that hub.

Observers say the Lab's biggest drawback as far as private-sector supporters were concerned, was the lack of near-term commercial potential for technologies developed there.

The Minister for Communications, Noel Dempsey, acknowledged that the lab was closing, and said it was a disappointment. He said its failure can be explained in part by the economic downturn that particularly affected the technology sector but also by the changing attitude of business to "non-directed research".

"The lab was particularly successful in a number of collaborative projects with Irish third level institutes," he said. "A number of these are ongoing and I am committed to funding these Higher Education Authority supported projects through to completion in their Irish educational establishments."

Dempsey said Ireland will aim to develop sustainable research activities in the Digital Hub location under a new institutional framework with the involvement of the Irish third-level education sector.

In 2003, the MIT Media Lab abandoned Media Lab Asia in Bangalore, India, following a run-in with the Indian government and the country's new information minister, Arun Shourie.

© ENN

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