An overview of our TechFest 2009 booth

As I mentioned earlier, a bunch of us from the Socio-Digital Systems team are in Redmond for our annual TechFest 2009 event. This is our big chance to show our work both to Microsoft employees, and also to the press and industry partners. The press day was yesterday. Today and tomorrow we present work to employees.

We’re starting to get some nice press coverage for our work. I’ll post some pointers to that in a later post, but I thought it would be interesting to give an overview of what we’re doing. The advantage of being in the press room is that I can talk pretty freely about our work.

We’re showing work along three themes, really. The first is all about digital content in the context of families, including how family members create a shared notion of history amongst themselves. Next we have a bunch of projects that are about different levels of casual communication, some location based, some focussed on the elderly. Finally we have a couple of projects that deal with network traffic, both ways in which data might be exchanged over the network, as well as ways in which family members might negotiate bandwidth use in their homes.

Here’s a couple of shots of our booth this year while we were still setting up on Monday.





The first of the projects we’re showing is Family Archive. The goal here was the creation of a piece of furniture that a family could used for collaboratively storing, managing and sharing both digital photos, and also shots that they captured of physical things through the built in camera.


Here’s a close up of the UI, which is based on some multi-touch technology. It’s quite metaphorical. People can create virtual boxes within which they can store their photos, and which they can label with digital ink.

Here’s a shot of a set of real clogs, and the virtual version that’s been captured of them using the overhead camera. The scenario here is that when the family goes on holiday they can store both the digital photos they captured while away, along with shots of the physical things they brought back with them.



In a similar vein to Family Archive, Timecard deals with personal and shared histories. People create timelines of their lives, or the lives of people they know, through an online service, and that content is then visible to them in their home through a dynamic digital photo display that shows pictures like a normal display, but when clicked presents a historical view of the content they entered.

Here’s the Timecard in slideshow mode. I’ve created this one in honour of my grandfather, so it contains a lot of content from his career in the Royal Air Force during WWII. Here’s it’s showing a postcard that he had of a Hampden, one of the aircraft he flew early on in his career.


Here’s the timeline which you get once you click on the screen of the device. You can see all the content above where it says “1940” which is stuff I’ve entered about my grandfather. Clicking on each item shows details about it.

Below that is a row of items that are just general world history, which help me better understand what was going at a broader context while my grandad was living his life. The idea here is that there might be multiple of these “contextual timelines” that get more and more specific about the history of places, people and events that relate to my grandfather.



“SPIBS” is an acronym that does actually stand for something, but I can’t remember what! It’s a UI that allows the filtering of large quantities of photos by laying out tokens spatially, each of which represent different criteria. The nearer that those tokens are to the center of the screen the stronger they act as a filter.

There are tokens for Red, Green and Blue for example. Dragging the red token near to the center of the screen results in a set of photos, shown in the rectangle in the middle of the circle, that are increasing red. Moving the Red, Green and Blue tokens at the same time allows for the mixing of colour. Other tokens include photos of landscapes, photos of faces and photos from different dates.




This is the first of the projects that is about simple communications. The idea here is to get the elderly involved in a very tentative way with the sharing of messages and digital images. We’ve created a technologically simple digital photo frame device, based on cellular technology, that requires very little infrastructure. This would live at the elderly person’s home. It wouldn’t require that they have a wi-fi network, for example. It should just plug in and work.

Other family members can then send messages and images to this device, and locally the owner can type out simple responses through an onscreen keyboard.

In this shot we’re combining the CellFrame (at bottom) with Homebook, a wall mounted family social network device that we developed last year. Family members can send messages to one another through the Homebook, and if they think their Grandparent might be interested they can drag a message down to the virtual representation of the CellFrame in the bottom-right of the screen, which automatically sends it on to the real CellFrame.




In the same vein of casual communications, Wayve is a device the we imagine would live in the kitchen. it allows the sending of messages through e-mail, SMS and between Wayve devices. It has a built in camera for taking shots of people locally to send in a message, and also has a pen so people can write out or sketch messages to one another.

We’ve had these in deployment with families in the UK, and they seem to have had a lot of fun taking shots of themselves, colouring them in and giving themselves facial hair, then sending them to other family members.




DION is a project that’s all about taking advantage of the proximity of people to one another to create opportunities for casual social engagement. Two friends can associate their cellphones through Bluetooth (a process we call “mating”), and then the system offers a range of features that are triggered when these two, or multiples of “mated” individuals are in the same location.

For example, you can write yourself a reminder that pops up when you next meet your friend. Or you can write a message to them that only gets transmitted when they are nearby. Similarly, when you’re near a “mated” friend or set of friends, you can create a virtual “event” that everyone gets associated with, then through web services any photos and other content that were created during the duration of that event are connected together.




HomeWatcher is a bandwidth monitor for families and friends sharing a home. It basically helps them answer two questions: “Why did my network slow down?” (When their network slows down it tells them which machine (and therefore probably individual) is causing it). And secondly “When’s the best time for me to use the network” (It gives them some sense of bandwidth usage over time, so that they can select when to do network intensive activities (like watching the BBCs iPlayer)).

What we’re really interested in with this kind of device, and others like it (such as home energy monitors) is how families go about negotiating these kind of resources when they are made visible, and how they change the dynamic between family members.



I’ll highlight some of the press we’re getting in another post. Here’s a show for Richard Harper presenting some content to a camera crew, followed by an embedded version of the resulting footage, which shows SPIBs, Wayve and CellFrame.