Category Archives: Microsoft

Getting into materials

This year’s Royal Institution Christmas Lectures are titled “Size Matters”. Presented by Dr Mark Miodownik, they’re an exploration of materials science looking at facts like “How can hamsters survive falling from an airplane? How can hair keep you warm in the cold and cool in the heat?” and so on. Aimed at kids from 11 to 17, they’ll be broadcast on BB4 on the 28th, 29th and 30th of December from 8pm. Definitely one to watch for the budding scientist. Good for adults, too, actually. And something I’m very happy to see us sponsor.

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All In The Mind

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Thanks to presenter Claudia Hammond and producer Fiona Hill from BBC Radio 4’s All In The Mind show for a really great edit of a conversation we had in Cambridge last Wednesday about our Technology Heirlooms work. It was broadcast last night on Radio 4, is repeated again today at 4:30pm, and thanks to the speed of the Internets is already available to stream and as a podcast.

It’s a 10 minute segment about 9 minutes into the show in which Abi and I talk about the objects we’ve designed, as well as some of the issues of overload and longevity for digital artefacts that might be inherited from us when we pass away.

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If you’re interested in the topic here are some bits to read:

  • An Introduction to Technology Heirlooms – A high level description of some of the issues around the topic of keeping and bequeathing digital things.
  • Some Technology Heirlooms – Descriptions and images of the three technology heirlooms we’ve built so far, including the Timecard device discussed in the show.
  • Technology Heirlooms videos – This blog post doesn’t yet have a video of the Timecard device discussed in the show, but does have content I’ve created for two other objects, the Backup Box and the Digital Slide Viewer.

        [UPDATE: BBC Online did a write up of this chat here: Life Goes Online After Death with ‘Memory Boxes’]

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        Technology Heirloom videos

        I’ve posted a couple of videos of the Digital Slide Viewer and the Backup Box prototypes that are described in my earlier entry entitled Some Technology Heirlooms. I hope to make one for Timecard as soon as we get them back from out “volunteers”.

        [UPDATE 9th Dec. 2010 – Just added the Timecard video]

        Digital Slide Viewer from Richard Banks on Vimeo.

        The Backup Box from Richard Banks on Vimeo.

        Timecard from Richard Banks on Vimeo.

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        Design Expo 2010 Videos

        Videos have just been posted for the six student presentations from this year’s Microsoft Design Expo. This is an international competition we’ve run for a decade, inviting various design colleges to do projects to a brief that we set. They pick their best student team and send them to Redmond to present their work at the Faculty Summit.

        This is the third year that I’ve been a coordinator for a school in the UK. The first two were with Dundee University, and because we try and mix up the schools regularly, this year I picked Central Saint Martins to participate. Slightly radically, we’ve been working with the Textile Futures course. This is an amazing department, combining technology with the craft of surfaces. Their work was really challenging and conceptual, and quite unlike anything that Microsoft employees tend to get exposed to. Well done to Natsai Chieza and Amy Congdon (from the team Social Pica) for inspiring the audience, and presenting so well. And well done to all the students on the course for some beautifully compelling work.

        Here are the shots from our two crits (in March and May). They’re very random and anonymous, as was my photography, but compelling.

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        CHI 2010 workshop on HCI at the End of Life

        On the 10th of April I helped host a workshop session at this years Computer Human Interaction conference (known by the shorthand “CHI”) in Atlanta, Georgia, with Mike Massimi (who really did the bulk of the work), Dave Kirk and Will Odom. I’m a little late getting this out, but I thought I’d write up some thoughts about the experience, as well as use this blog post as a place to write up the notes from my breakout session during the day, which was on “artefacts”.

        Workshops are run before the conference proper begins, and are a chance for groups of like minded people to get together to discuss and learn more about a topic area. Our topic was “Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) at the End of Life”.

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        Lunch at Max Lager’s

        The term HCI is getting a little outdated in this context, really. It’s a term used in our industry as shorthand for “people using technology”, although it sounds way more geeky than that. What the 11 of us who met were primarily interested in was how technology is being used, or might be used, during the difficult period towards the end of a persons life and after.

        Mike Massimi’s original call for participation gives you a good sense of the themes in more detail, and the position papers we received from participants show the variety of work going on in this area. These are all downloadable from the site and worth a closer look. For example, some of the participants had studied activity on social networking sites such as Facebook after someone in a community had passed away. Others looked at how technology might make decision making easier for those approaching the end of their lives. A few papers dealt with the use of digital media in this space, from creating personal chronicles of a life, to photographing people after they had passed away. My own interest was through the work I’ve been doing on Technology Heirlooms, looking at the process of passing digital things on at the end of life.

        It all sounds very morbid, but actually wasn’t. I think we had a very thoughtful, thought-provoking and insightful day, with some great discussion and some practical next steps. We spent quite a bit of time doing introductions, and giving each participant time to explain their work. It’s always great to hear first hand accounts of motivations and outcomes.

         

        BREAKOUT SESSIONS

        Then after lunch we did a classic post-it note exercise, developing a grouping the different themes we had picked up during the day. We found 4 themes that emerged:

        • The Temporal – about the process before, during and after bereavement. Something we called the “Narrative of Dying”.
        • Identity, Ethics and Social Networks – around issues of online identity. How control of someone’s online identity comes about after their death and the ethics of then managing someone else’s online presences.
        • The Ethics of Research Practice – dealing specifically with how researchers should do their work sensitively in this domain.
        • Artefacts – around issues of dealing with “stuff” before and after bereavement.

         

        ARTEFACTS. PROS AND CONS.

        I joined the group (consisting of Angela Riechers, Jim Kosem and Daniela Petrelli) that took on the last of these topics, on Artefacts. We really felt like this was an issue of the tension between digital and physical things, that somehow we didn’t understand what we might be losing as heirlooms shift from being ‘real’ to ‘virtual’. We decided to use the time listing out the positives of each.

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        There was a suspicion in our group that our relationship and sentimentality towards physical things was a generational thing. That new generations, who spent more time with the digital than the physical, wouldn’t feel the same bias as some of us towards the physical.

        There was also a sense that physical things were losing their value, as they become transient and temporary holders of digital content. An example of this kind of object is a mobile phone, which is typically replaced every 14 months.

        An interesting outcome of these lists are that the positives of one form of artefact are inevitably a negative for the other. And in many cases the reverse of a positive of one artefact type was a positive of the other. So, for example, the ‘uniqueness’ of a physical thing was seen as a positive – the fact that there’s only one of each physical thing makes it somehow more precious. So somehow the fact that digital things are easy to copy and therefore can’t be considered unique cheapens them. At the same time, the fact that a digital thing can be so easily duplicated is also a positive. It makes a digital thing shareable amongst family members, for example, with no arguments over ownership.

        So here is the list of positive attributes of physical things:

        • Physical things are unique.
        • Physical things are precious.
        • Physical things have a “smell” – subtle qualities of being physical.
        • Physical (particularly old) things have an aesthetic that comes with time.
        • Physical things have to be curated because they take up real space. You can’t keep a limitless number. They force decision making.
        • Therefore, physical things have been ‘selected’, which makes them more meaningful.
        • Physical things have stories associated with them about their physicality.
        • Physical things get a patina through their knocks that also tell their story.
        • Books exemplify a special example of the physical. They have attributes that it’s hard for the digital to match (such as browsability, portability)
        • Physical things can be personalised and changed.

        And here’s the positive attributes of digital things:

        • Digital things do not take up space – there’s no cost associated with keeping them and they are very portable.
        • We can have a serendipitous relationship with digital things that can be delightful. I can put all 60 gigabytes of my music collection on random, for example, and find songs I haven’t listened to in decades.
        • Digital things can have rich interactions, motion etc.
        • Digital things can be easily duplicated and shared.
        • Digital things do not crumble.
        • Digital things can be augmented with metadata – objects can carry their stories, for example.

        And a few things we found that both shared:

        • Both physical and digital things need to be maintained to make sure they persist.
        • Both digital and physical things make us guilty if we don’t sort them out.
        • We feel delight when we randomly come across lost or forgotten things, whether they are digital or physical.
        • Both need curating, but for different reason. For physical things we need to decide what to keep in order to keep our environments sane. For digital things we curate to make special, in order to elevate the “best” for sharing for example.

        This feels like a useful list, for me at least, as we continue to think about the digital and physical forms that we reminisce with through the things we keep. Relevant to the Technology Heirlooms work, anyway.

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        Old Timecard Video

        I’d forgotten about this video from last year’s Innovation Day event at Microsoft Research in Cambridge (so this was from about April 2009). It shows the V1 of Timecard, which was a non-working proof of concept that came before the working version I described recently. The comments about the goals behind the project still apply, even if the object itself has changed quite a bit.

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        Digital Agency Event

        Michael McClary has put together a write-up of a Microsoft event in London that I was lucky enough to participate in a few weeks ago. Focussed on showing off some of the cooler things coming up from us, it showcased to a UK audience first hand a lot of the announcements made at MIX 2010, including stuff about the Windows Phone, as well as giving some of our partners in the UK a place to showcase their work. Michael gives a great overview of everything that was shown on the day. Worth a read.

        I felt a little out of place with my stuff about bereavement and heirlooms, but it seemed to go down well. I guess my role in this sort of session is to get the audience thinking about something quite outside of their own space, or the key topics of the day, before they get down to more “serious” business.

        The location of the event was stunning, at the top of the CenterPoint tower in the centre of London. Here’s a few shots.

        Looking out across the roof of the British Museum (left) and straight down Oxford Street (right):

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        The sun starting to set across London. I particularly like the brightly lit greenhouse on a rooftop in the centre of the second shot:

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        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

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        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).

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        (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.)

         

        Timecard

        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:

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        Timeline view:

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        Close-up of timeline view:

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        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.

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

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        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.

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        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.

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        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.

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

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        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.

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        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?

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        An Introduction to Technology Heirlooms

        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.

         

        Technology Heirlooms

        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.

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        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:

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