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?


15 thoughts on “Techfest 2010: Some Technology Heirlooms”

  1. These are nice ideas, preserving personal and family memories digitally, but to me, I don’t think such specific devices are needed, when you have actual portable HDD’s, SD cards, and whatnot.

    Timecard could be integrated into any digital photo frame instead, be accessible through a website, or be a mini-software program on a computer.

    The Digital Slide Viewer, I think, would be better if stored on SD or MicroSD cards (because it’s both compact and widely adopted), and placed in a better type of viewing display.

    The Backup Box would seem better if such data was again, saved on a separate portable HDD and not be so tailored to just one specific purpose.

    I like the thinking and concept behind these ideas, I just don’t like how the actual hardware seems so limited to specific purposes when they could do much more, or where there’s actual hardware solutions that appear to do a better job than this.

  2. Hi Quikboy

    Thanks for your very thoughtful comment. I definitely get what you’re saying. However i think the point here is about our sentimental relationship with physical versus digital things.

    There are always cheaper or more straightforward ways of doing things with technology. I think the question I’m trying to raise with these objects is about what it means to keep our stuff for a long time. What kind of things do you feel sentimental about? What kinds of things have you inherited from your family that you keep and even put on display in your home? The point of Timecard isn’t that it’s “any digital photo frame”. It’s an object that I imagine a family has kept for 40 years. Because of that it feels like it needs to be special. I worry, for example, that many digital photo frames are being treated like technology objects, like a TV. Most of them seem to have logos on, or look very techie. But if you look at analog photos in normal photo frames the experience isn’t like that at all. People pick frames to fit their homes, or to fit the photo.

    Backup Box is similar. It’s not about content just stuck on a portable HDD. It’s about an object that lives in your home for 40 or more years, eventually becoming the property of your offspring. The ease with which you can just store virtual stuff away means we’re caring less about the quality of the physical things that surround us.

    Cheers and thanks again.

  3. Ok, I think I can see the reasoning behind this. I guess I’m just so wrapped up in visualizing an ideal simplistic future that I’m forgetting the reality of how important the memories we leave behind and how they should be preserved.

    Nice to see y’all are taking some initiative about this, with a lot of memories being recorded digitally now.

  4. Hey Richard, maybe a theme would be to size objects relative to their capacity. For example a 2TB object would be bigger than a 1TB object. Today, capacity is never communicated through an objects form, but what I’m reading from this prototypes is that you are mainly trying to communicate “value” of its contents. I’m sure you’ve thought about eInk and stuff, but I don’t want my memories to live inside of a box, a TV or LCD. Like an old album passed down from Grandparents the images live on the “surface” of its container. Have you thought about the “mortality” of information from the POV that digital content never ages. As an affordance “aging” images to imply time might be an interesting “trick” that can be toggled to being the image/memory back to its 1080p vividness. Have you tried using distressed materials for your containers? They are lovely but they lack the patina of what I imagine memories need. Random ideas, but I love the direction! Reminds me of some cool stuff I saw at RCA in the late 90’s. Aloha

  5. Hi Richard,
    I am very interested in the research and ideas you are working on. For my family I have been trying to maintain a ‘live’ website. A concern I have is if my service provider stops offering a service, or who will maintain the site in the future. I’d like it to be around for generations to come. Does a perpetual website fit into your plans anywhere?

  6. I think that’s a perfectly reasonable concern. The idea of a perpetual website is definitely an interesting one. I think you have to own the content, in some ways, and be prepared to move it between service providers if necessary (the kind that will give you simple web hosting). I use WordPress for this blog, but I think there’s every possibility that I will struggle to keep it going for decades. It’s possible to export entries from a blog, but innevitably all the links to pictures and videos break. Nasty problem.

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