A new year, so time to go through the 4,400 shots I’ve taken this year to pick out my favorites. I was surprised to see that this is the 7th year I’ve done this. 44 images this year, which is pretty much in line with last year’s 42 images + 1 video. It’s a totally random process. I’ve felt a little flat about how focused I’ve been on this activity, despite the new camera I mentioned (and still love) last year. So I’m happy to find that I like the results. Lots more people than normal, and a few shots that are a little more “snappy” than I’d like, but I’m quite pleased.
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).
(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:
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.
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.
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?
I’ve mentioned fleetingly in the past the work we’re doing in Cambridge around Technology Heirlooms. Mostly I’ve pointed to the odd paper or presentation that we’ve published. Thank you if you’ve had the patience to either read or watch what I’ve referenced. I’m going to stretch your patience further though, since I thought it might be interesting to drill down a little into this area of research to give it some context.
Firstly I’ll try to describe more generally some of our thoughts and ideas about technology in the long term. Then I’ll try and describe more specifically what we mean by a technology heirloom.
Technology + Time
This idea of thinking about technology over extended lengths of time is a primary motivator for us. It seems quite striking how our relationship with technological objects and digital “things” has become quite fleeting. I no longer expect to buy a phone or an mp3 player and keep it more than a few years. I’ve become used to the idea that something better is just around the corner and I’m quite prepared to abandon what I have now to get it. This seems a little odd.
There’s a Green imperative here, of course, as there seems to be in pretty much everything we do now. It seems unsustainable to continue throwing these physical items into landfills, and we either need to change that habit, or find a way of making the cycle less onerous. In Cambridge we’re interested in this ethical dimension, of course, but more broadly we really seek to understand what it means to have an attachment with our things that extends beyond such short periods of time. There are items that we keep and treasure in our homes already, but these tend not to be technological, beyond the odd collection of ancient video games that a few individuals don’t seem to be able to part with. Why do we keep some things, and not others?
The Role of Objects in Our Lives
We’re trying to think about this more broadly because our relationship to the things we keep matters not only for physical items, but, we assume, also for the megabytes of data that we’re creating. It is common, for example, to keep and display printed photos in our home. They act as touchstones for us to people and events in our past. They tell visitors to our homes something about us through the choices we make of their content, where they are placed and the prominence they are given. And because these items are physical, their condition tells us something too. They acquire a patina of their own that tell us stories of use. Fingerprints on glass show that attention was paid to them. Nicks and scratches on the frame show how well they were taken care of.
So these items help us remember; tell others something about us through our environment; and tell their own story of use as objects. Is this true of the new digital things in our lives? Is this true, for example, for the thousands of digital photos that many of us are now taking every year? To some extent it may be too early to tell. Our relationship to digital content is still a relatively new one. So part of the work we’re doing in Cambridge is to extrapolate out to try and anticipate how our relationship with digital things will change once we ever get used to having them around over the long term.
As a designer, this is a tough space to design for. It’s impossible to predict what items a person will keep and put on display in their home. How can we know what’s likely to be precious to them? An object that seems worthless to one person may be charged with sentiment for another.
The Role of Objects Beyond our Lives
This question of the role of sentiment extends past our own lifetimes, just as the objects themselves are likely to outlive us. What happens to them at the end of our lives? Just as our physical things live on past us, sometimes becoming a part of the lives of our offspring, other family or friends, this will surely be true of our digital items.
The process through which objects are passed on through the generations is complex. Sometimes when we receive things from the deceased it’s through an act that was deliberate and thought out. They intended us to get an item. Sometimes, though, it’s entirely accidental. We may receive heirlooms from them simply through the process of their homes and lives being disassembled.
Sometimes the things that we inherit are welcome, and we’re happy to have them and integrate them into our own lives. We might even put them on display in our own homes. Other times we’re not so happy, and they seem incongruous with the ways in which we live. Maybe we don’t find them attractive, or they’re not very meaningful. Often, even though they are not things we would have chosen to own, they come with a sense of obligation that doesn’t allow us to part with them. We’d rather keep them in a box in the basement than dishonour the memory of the deceased by discarding them. In some senses they are burdensome.
Predicting which heirlooms we might actually feel sentimental about is a challenge. Our parents may THINK that they can predict what we would like to inherit, for example, but often the reality is different. The memories of our own childhood can be quite different from theirs, and therefore the artefacts we feel sentimental about can also be different.
So the role that inherited items play in the recipients life is complex, as is the job of planning to pass on your own items. We hope, though, to understand something about how this happens in everyday life, and from that learn how this might apply to digital things too.
Beyond that, we also hope to be able to design for heirloom-ness. We’re not saying that we can design heirlooms. As I mentioned, I don’t think we can predict what may or may not be sentimental to any individual. But what we might be able to do is design objects and experiences that help mediate digital content or technological objects in a way that softens their edges, makes content more accessible and so on. This is what we mean by a technology heirloom.
Timecard, which we’ve shown publicly a few times in the last 6 months, is an early example of this. It’s a service coupled with an appliance. The service component lets you create timelines around someone’s life. You might, for example, create a timeline of your baby’s development, or, in my case, my grandfather’s life. Once the timeline is created the content is displayed in a dynamic digital photo frame that you have around you in your home. These kinds of devices allow you to reflect on someone’s life, and also create experiences that have great sentimental value to a family as a record of their history. I’d hope that the Timecard I’ve created of my Grandfather, for example, would be something that my daughter might want. This isn’t unlike the role that photo albums can take. Timecard is just exploiting the advantages of digital media in creating something expressive and dynamic.
Follow Up Themes
So that’s the basis of what we’re interested in. Over the next few months I’ll drill down into a few specific topics mentioned above, describing some different sources of academic research and online inspiration, and some example design ideas. Topics I’m hoping to cover may include:
- Obligations and honouring. What it means to look after objects that have been handed down to you. What sense of obligation do people feel in taking care of them. What rituals and practices do people undertake to honour, and through this better understand people who’ve past on.
- New types of things to keep. Digital photos have a clear analogue equivalent, but many of our technological creations do not. What new kinds of items might we be passing on through the generations in the future? How might we be doing this? What value do they bring? These might include, for example, digital life logs captured by new recording devices, or the output of new technologies for capturing a sense of place.
- Object qualities. Setting aside the sentimental value of an heirlooms, what are some of the qualities of objects that people like to keep? These might include materials that age well, forms that are compelling and so on.
- Connections to memory. How do people use heirlooms to tell stories of experiences and moments that they remember? How do heirlooms change as mediators of memory as they get passed on not just through one generation but successive generations that may not have memories of the originator of their own.
There’s a lot of literature in this area, particularly in the social sciences. I won’t go into those here. But here are a few references to some sources that we’ve helped author ourselves, and a couple we haven’t:
Odd the things you find now that humanity is dumping its combined knowledge of useless ephemera online. It’s as good a place as any for it, I guess.
Exhibit A, the video for the song “Nowhere Girl” by flash-in-the-pan band, B-Movie. My roommate Nick Mellor and I obsessed over this one in our study at school when we were about 15. A study which we had unadvisedly painted black and red, BTW.
I didn’t even know this song HAD a video (not that ripping off Metropolis counts as creative).
Importantly, this is the 12″ version not the 7″. Something about the 12″ version was way more compelling. Maybe the sound of the girl/gull (we were never sure which) screaming at the beginning of the track?