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.
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 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.
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:
PSFK posted the video of the talk I gave recently at their Good Ideas Salon in London. It’s about 30 minutes long and covers some of our thoughts in Cambridge around how people get sentimental about objects, particularly heirlooms, and how that might apply to digital and technological objects in the future.
During the editing they seem to have replaced the Photosynth that I originally used (of a Guitar workshop) with the one from Obama’s inauguration, which changes the context a little (since I was really talking about capturing sentimental spaces).
Nice article by Angela Gunn at BetaNews, that mentions Timecard, CellFrame and Family Archive, which we showed recently at Techfest (see my overview):
“SDS has a knack for developing humble gadgets that you wish someone would sell you right here, right now; I personally yearn for my own Whereabouts Clock, which I believe I last saw in the Arthur and Molly Weasley home. As with almost everything at TechFest, nothing’s certain to see daylight and everything’s likely to change. Still, I came away from Cambridge’s booth more than ordinarily wishing that I already had the option to interact with technology the way they envision me doing, and glad they made the trip to Washington.”
A lot of this focussed on the Family Archive, designed as a piece of furniture into which a family could store their shared digital media, as well as shots of physical things, for reminiscing and story telling. It’s an interesting piece of work, with an expressive user interface based on the metaphor of boxes and basements.
Here’s another video from Microsoft’s TechFest, showing the "Family Archive" digital scrapbook mentioned in today’s story. (Yesterday I posted this video of the "pinch" control that’s also mentioned.)
Here researcher David Kirk demonstrates the prototype touch-screen photo handling system, then adds a pair of souvenir clogs to the collection:
There’s some decent shots of our work up on the Microsoft Techfest site, actually. These include photos of the Family Archive interface, Timecard (which I was demoing) as well as Wayve and CellFrame (both shown off be Sian Lindley). There’s also a video of Richard Harper showing off SPIBS, Wayve and CellFrame (embedded below).
Another great bit of coverage done my Microsoft, actually, was this write up by Rob Knies, who was live-blogging the whole event. You can see more at his "Techfest Live!” blog. Rob goes into quite a bit of detail about Family Archive, Timecard, CellFrame and Wayve. Here’s a quote from me in the article, attempting to tie Family Archive and Timecard together thematically:
"This general theme we’re interested in," he says, "we’re calling technology heirlooms. It’s about just looking at technology generally and saying: ‘What about 30 years’ time? Where will this be? Who will care about it? What will people want to do with it?’"
CNET managed to drop in a shot of Stuart Taylor demoing SPIBS as part of this article, although the article itself doesn’t mention SPIBS. On this page there’s more detail about the shot, though. Now that I look closer, I’m actually in the back of that shot, pointing abstractly.
This Network World article by Nancy Gohring has a pretty thorough description of Dave demoing Family Archive, including some details of the deployment that we did over the summer. There’s also a good paragraph about Timecard, in which Nancy clearly got the concept that it could be a device for either representing the past as a form of memorial OR recording online activity as a form of future heirloom.
Although this TechRadar article by Mike Harris has a title that’s primarily about Photosynth, it also talks in some depth about TimeCard, which was demoed to Mike by Richard Harper. I like Richard’s quote, which is a pretty great summary of the concept.
"The Timecard project provocatively aims to consider the development of technologies that are not built for planned obsolescence, but are built specifically to last and to outlive their owners," says researcher Richard Harper. "Timecard is a device and a service that can create timeline-style records of a person, similar to a ‘baby book,’ but extending throughout life."
This Associated Press article by Jessica Mintz covers Family Archive (also shown in shots 4 and 6), too, and cryptically mentions two other projects that we did, which I’m assuming are Timecard and DION.
“The Cambridge group also showed off a program to help archive digital ephemera, from photos to Twitter messages, along a timeline, and one that "hand-delivers" saved messages and reminders when people with linked Bluetooth phones stand in close proximity.”
Daniel Nicholas at eNews 2.0 also mentions the Family Archive in passing in this short article.
More pragmatic Microsoft in Cambridge, UK researchers working on digital adaptation of the family album (TimeCard). Applications are still a bit blurry, but the idea is to organize and store digitally memories, events and other stories of family.
On the picture below its achievement in the form of a digital registry based on a timephased wire. TimeCard is only one of the bricks of a more comprehensive research project on sharing information within the family.
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.
TechFest is Microsoft Research’s annual show-and-tell. The whole division basically decamps to the Conference Center in Redmond and spend two or three days showing Microsoft employees what we spend our time doing. It’s a good way for them to get an overview, and hopefully make connections with researchers that are working in areas that are related to their products.
I did a long post a couple of years ago about TechFest when we were in the room that was open to the press, and therefore we were showing work that I could blog about publicly. Last year I was a bit quieter, because we were in the super-secret-rooms. This year we’re back in the press room so I’m more free to talk about the event, and what we’re showing. Expect to see a few posts here about how it’s going, some shots of our work, and some pointers to any press we get if we’re lucky.