Our TechFest 2010 booth

Channel 9 took video of our booth at TechFest 2010. It looks like they posted it over a week ago, so it slipped by me. TechFest is the annual Microsoft Research show-and-tell event that takes place in Redmond in the US. All the teams get a booth. This year we really went to town, dressing the booth in some very cool curtains/wallpaper designed by John Helmes. You’ll see him introduce our Family Archive/Memory Maker system in the first half of the video, which has changed radically since we showed a first version a year ago. The new system has a much broader story, with tagging, timeline visualizations and the creation of objects like digital scrapbooks.

In the second half of the video I’ll go on (some more) about Technology Heirlooms, and show some of the demos I posted shots of last week.

Kudos to Xiang Cao who was just off camera and so didn’t get featured in the video, but was the third Musketeer manning the booth for three days.

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Channel 9 | Techfest: The Future of Looking Back

The Rolodex


Part of Gizmodo’s great week of articles on Memory (who would have expected it?) I love this quote from Jane Grossman’s article on the Rolodex.

"Rolodexes were a testament to your relationships and your personal history. In 2008, Stanford University professors found that the average Facebook member aspires to have around three hundred friends, but that would’ve seemed a piddling number to the average Rolodex devotee, who often made it a point to use as many cards as the contraption could allow—and some held up to six-thousand. I remember an officemate who used to leave his Rolodex flipped open to important people. He didn’t realize this made him look like a douche. But I guess people do the same kind of thing on Facebook. Did I mention I’m friends with Wendy the Snapple Lady?"

Nearly everything we do in Cambridge seems to come down to the same basic question: is there anything really new about our needs and behaviours today? What goes around seems to come around.

The Life and Death of the Rolodex

Workshop on HCI at the End of Life

I’m helping organize a workshop on the topic of “HCI at the End of Life” at the Computer Human Interaction 2010 (CHI) conference in April. To say I’m organizing it would be a little inaccurate. Somehow I have my name down as an organizer, but in reality this seems to mean watching Mike Massimi being hugely productive.

The workshop is closed now, unfortunately, but there’s a bunch if interesting papers up on the site



Grandad’s Virtual PC

One of the tongue-in-cheek ideas I’ve presented a few times when talking about Technology Heirlooms is the idea that the way in which virtual things are arranged may carry as much meaning, sentimentally, as the things themselves. This isn’t unlike a place, and the arrangement of things in it (think “Grandad’s shed/workshop”) being a strong source for reminiscing, more so than any individual tool in it.

I’ve shown the following thumbnail sketch to illustrate this. The scenario for this sketch is that you inherit a PC from a relative who has passed away. Rather than simply sorting through, deleting and keeping the content, you start to host their PC on your own desktop as a virtual copy. The icon lives on your machine as a reminder of them, and their PC becomes a place that is kept intact, and that you can “visit” whenever you want. This presupposes that the choices that your relative made in the arrangement of their digital stuff has value in and of itself – that the desktop wallpaper they used or the way they set up their folders tells you something about them and their life.


Although I’ve always thought this idea was a little speculative, and used it primarily to make a point, I came across the Salmon Rushdie Archives at Emory University (vie New York Times), which really describes something similar. This is an academic resource, held at the University’s Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library, that, in addition to storing the more traditional paper based manuscripts and notebooks, virtually hosts 4 of the Apple computers used by Rushdie to author his books. The implication of the following video is that there’s real value in seeing that Rushdie, for example, kept copious notes using the Mac’s Sticky Notes application, or used Eudora for e-mail. I like the way that the narrator describes “peeking into Rushdie’s wastebasket”, which makes it sound as socially unacceptable as dumpster diving.

Impact! @ the RCA

Some quick notes from my visit to the Royal College of Art to see the Impact! exhibition. This presented a series of projects in which RCA-connected designers (linked primarily with the Design Interactions department) were put together with scientists working on projects funded by the EPSRC. The overarching goal, as with much of the work on Design Interactions students, is to draw attention to, and help the public imagine, the potential impact of new forms of science on our futures through the development of artefacts and stories that help us see forward.

In some cases, the projects seemed even more ambitious, namely to help further the actual science. There is a reflective thing going on here, of course, where this isn’t just about communicating outwards to the public. Much of the works looks inward, too, allowing scientists themselves to see the potential impact of their own work, enabling a deeper form of insight onto what it is they’re doing (for better or worst).

First, a gratuitous shot of my daughter enjoying the multi-media experience of Zoe Papadopoulou’s Nuclear Dialogues.



Fabulous Fabbers, from David Benque, really caught my attention. David imagines a radical shifting in the way we acquire our “things” brought on by new fabrication technologies (such as 3D printing), new ecological imperatives, new forms of technological crafting and so on. In his project he imagine nomadic factories that, like the big top circus, travel from town to town producing and replicating a communities needs on demand.



Pathogen Hunter by Susana Soares and Mikael Metthey. A beautiful and fictional set of tools for the budding microbe hunter.



Revital Cohen’s Phantom Recorder. A device for catching the electrical echoes of phantom limbs (the feeling that a limb is still there after it has been lost).



James Auger’s Happylife is exploring the use of thermal imaging technology as a security instrument that, through heat signatures of the body, can assess a person’s physiological state, and therefore potentially the subtle cues that might give away the mental state. Could imagery like this identify the guilty? This is a working system. As you stand in front of the camera (at the bottom-right of the first image) your face appears on the large screen, freezes for a few seconds, then the dials on the device in the second image start to turn. I like how James has left their meaning ambiguous. They’re not labelled. To some extent that speaks to the tension between the confidence we seem to have in technology by default, that it CAN do this sort of prediction accurately, and the reality that in the end we’re assigning deeply meaningful personal traits to the random changes in digits.




The 5th Dimensional Camera from Jon Ardern and Anab Jain. As usual, Anab’s work is beautifully supported by storytelling. This is a fictional camera that “sees” into 50 parallel dimensions at once, through the “power” of quantum mechanics. The work tells the story of 3 test subjects who live with the camera, each of which use it in quite different ways. The subject in the second shot below points the camera at themselves, writing messages daily of what they’re feeling. This doesn’t feel unlike the sort of public naval-gazing that takes place on sights like Flickaday, except the audience in this case is the subject herself. The camera shows her, and a myriad of different messages, across all these parallel dimensions at the same moment. Each life and message is subtly or wholy different from the “original” as it corresponds to a different branch in space-time.




Policing Genes by Thomas Thwaites. Thomas imagines a world that doesn’t seem at all implausible, even as it seems slightly ridiculous. Field trials for plants that are being genetically modified to produce vaccines are already taking place. This is the science that Thomas is focussed on. He assumes perfectly reasonably that, humans being humans, this is simply another technology ripe for hacking, and that suburbs the world over will soon be filled with little patches of English Country Gardens, hiding away narcotics and controlled pharmaceuticals in their greenery. Naturally, the Police will need a team of crack bees to sniff them out.


Techfest 2010: Some Technology Heirlooms

We recently took part in TechFest 2010, the latest in Microsoft Research’s show and tell events, with a booth that we entitled “The Future of Looking Back”. TechFest is primarily a way for people in Research to meet people in Microsoft’s product groups who are interested in similar topic areas. It’s a sort of trade show, in which each Research team has a booth that contains things they’ve made or are thinking about from the previous year. The event also has a “public day” during which we were able to show work to a bunch of Microsoft partners. Since our work was “public” I thought it would be fine to share some of it here.

Three of the projects we showed are related to our Technology Heirlooms theme, which I’ve written about before. This theme is all about what it means to live with digital stuff for a long time. We’re talking 40+ years, and possibly to a point where we start thinking about passing on our digital objects and files to our offspring. We don’t tend to think of technology in those sorts of terms, although we tend to take that length of time for granted when it comes to physical artefacts like paper photos.

These projects are Timecard, the Backup Box and the Digital Slide Viewer (more details below).

P1030585_90x90  P1010350_90x90  P1010313_90x90

(Remember, these aren’t future Microsoft products. These are speculative research objects that we use to try and understand better how people think about issues like reminiscing and their family’s history.)



This is a much more evolved version of an item we showed at Techfest 2009. We’ve had a year during which our ideas have really solidified, and we’ve put together a prototype that’s almost ready to test with real people in their homes.

Timecard is a personal timeline object. It’s like a digital photo frame, except the content is structured by time, and is all about one person. You might see a photo on it that you recognize, or you want to use to tell a story to a visitor in your home. Clicking on the photo brings up a timeline view that shows all the photos of that person chronologically. It allows you to see the structure of their life, and tell the story of them in an order that makes sense.

We’re really asking with Timecard if you can build up a personal history of someone to a point where the value of the content and structure accumulates so much that the object become something that a family would come to treasure, and maybe even start passing on through the generations.


Timecard in slideshow mode. The content is all of my daughter:


Timeline view:


Close-up of timeline view:



A Digital Slide Viewer

Imagine you have a relative who uses Flickr for much of their life. One day they pass away. Would you want to inherit their account, with all of its responsibilities, or do you really just want the content to be able to use for reminiscing about the person? I think I might want the latter.

With the Digital Slide Viewer we imagine that I’m able to pay a service to back up that account into a device which can then live on my bookshelf at home. Like a photo album, I can just pull it down and use it to browse through shots of this person’s life. Those shots just happened to have originated on a web service.

Here’s a shot of the device. Content actually lives in the viewer. The small white slides correspond to sets of photos on Flickr. When the slides are inserted in the device the colour of the labels on each slide is analyzed, and a corresponding set of images appear on the small screen embedded in the viewer.


Here’s a slide. The slide at the front actually corresponds to a set of photos I have of my wife.



The viewer has a small 100×100 pixel display embedded in it. It also has a couple of tilt switches in it, so the device can be tilted to the right to go to the next photo and the left to go to the previous one.



Some of the slides. One idea we’re exploring is what king of metadata we might also download from Flickr. Here’s a slide that is blank on the left, shows a title and date in the middle, and then shows the location of the photo, as well as comment, view and favorite status from Flickr.

08-slide  09-slide details  10-slide metadata 

This concept was originally developed by Mark Selby, who interned with us in 2009. He’s now a PhD candidate in Nottingham University’s Horizon Digital Economy Research Hub.


A Backup Box

A lot of the messages we’re sharing through websites like Twitter are a form of diary keeping. Information such as where we are, what we’re doing, who we’re meeting and what we’re thinking, that we might traditionally written in a book at home, is now being shared on line through our status messages and blog entries.

We’re concerned that this content won’t persist long enough online for us to be able to use it for reminiscing once we get older. I know in 20 or 30 years I’d like to be able to use my Twitter feed, for example, to look back on what I was doing in 2010. I’m not confident, though, that Twitter will still exist in 20 or 30 years, and the onus is on me to worry about this since the burden is not on the social networks to persist this content for me for that long.

The Backup Box is a concept device that lives in the corner of my living room doing nothing but backing up the content of my Twitter feed. It’s an object of reassurance that leaves me with some confidence that the message I’m putting online will also persist offline. It’s an insurance policy for the future of my reminiscences.

Most of the time the box has a lid on it.


I can take the lid off, though, at any time and browse back through the timeline of my Twitter feed.


Each of these little flowers is a Tweet. The Tweets are connected together by one long curve that gives some sense of order. The horizontal axis is days. The vertical axis is time of day, with Noon somewhere in the middle. So most of these Tweets were posted in the afternoon.


Clicking on a Tweet opens it. This box currently has the last 1000+ Tweets that I’ve posted to Twitter on it. We imaging that, as with Timecard, its value as an object increases as the content on it grows. I wonder what my daughter would make of this kind of object if she inherited in the future. How would it compare to inheriting my diaries?


Interaction 10 talk

I was lucky enough to do a talk at the recent Interaction 10 conference in Savannah. An amazingly inspiring event, spread over a number of really eclectic locations (a theatre, a pharmacy, a blacksmiths and a restaurant). Compared to the inaugural conference in 2008, which was also in Savannah, the distribution of locations really encouraged mixing, as well as giving a much better sense of the city.

At some point I’ll go through my notes and write something up, but for now I thought I’d post the video of my bit.

Richard Banks-The 40 Year Old Tweet from Interaction Design Association on Vimeo.

Thanks to Geoff Alday, Diego Pulido, Gautam Ramdurai and others for the reviews.

Videos of the rest of the sessions are here.