Even tech wizards occasionally need help with consumer electronics buying decisions, and Pattie Maes  is no exception. Not long ago, Maes, director of the Fluid Interfaces Group at MIT's Media Lab, went shopping for a camera at her local electronics store. Torn between two models, she turned to a sales clerk for advice. Surly and ill-informed, the clerk couldn't have been less interested. "This guy wasn't going to help me at all," she recalled.
We've all been there. Unlike most of us, however, Maes is in a position to do something about the gnarly problem of shopping intelligence and support. This week at Intel's "Connected Store " booth at the National Retail Federations 2011 show  in New York, Maes and her students at the MIT Lab unveiled LuminAR , a tricked-out desk lamp that can turn any surface into an interactive product guide for shoppers. If it eventually finds its way into retail stores, it has the potential to be a combination of Consumer Reports, Cnet, Shopzilla, and the geek of your dreams--without the attitude.
LuminAR (think: Lumin, as in light, and AR as in augmented reality) is a project underwritten by two Media Lab sponsors, Intel and Best Buy. It turns a light bulb, souped up with an Intel Atom Processor  into a robotic, digital information device. In simple terms, it projects information--like product specs and reviews--onto a surface like a store counter. What's more, it allows a shopper torn between, say, two cameras, to interact with the projected information, drilling down for more details, or tapping into video conferencing to hear more about the product from an expert.
But don't expect to see this bit of wizardry at your local mall in the next year, Maes says. "There are no major tech hurdles that need to be resolved, but it usually takes 2-3 years from the moment a company takes on a piece of research like ths until you see it in the market," she says. "It could be as much as five years out."
Until then, looks like we're at the mercy of the geeks.