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.
If you’re interested in the topic here are some bits to read:
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.
I mentioned in my post on Technology Heirlooms from a long time ago that at some point I was going to start drilling down on specific topics in the project in order to describe them in more detail. Like many ideas promised online, this is another one that hasn’t quite come to pass as intended.
So I thought what I’d do to fill the awkward silence is post some of the more inspirational work that other people have done that is tied to different aspects of this project. These are things that’ I’ve netted as part of the trawling I do looking for things to post to the trends blog that I maintain.
I thought I’d start with some beautiful projects that relate to the repurposing of digital objects. One issue with a technology heirloom is that it’s lifetime as a useful technological entity is a limited one, even if it’s a compelling artefact. Often it is superseded by something better or cooler, like the newest phone that comes along, or a change in format such as the move from VHS to DVD. With a loss in purpose it can become something we feel compelled to discard, even if it has sentiment to us.
One way to extend the life of the artefact, to continue to allow a sentimental item to have a function in our lives, is to subvert it, and make it do something that IS contemporary. If it can continue to have use it gives us a reason to not throw away something we’d rather keep. It allows us to “fix” something in a way that keeps it as part of our lives.
Here are some great projects that subvert or reconfigure artefacts in a way that gives them new purpose and extends their lifetime.
Bootleg Objects from Droog
The creations of Markus Bader (www.markusbader.net) and designer Max Wolf, presented as part of the Droog Design collective, these are beautiful reworkings of classic stereo equipment produced by Braun and Bang & Ollufson in the 60s and 70s. They are very sensitive to the original design spirit of the objects, while subtly and sometimes humorously, bringing them up to date technologically.
"the cassette slot now houses a smart card reader. Further, a DVD-drive is hidden behind a previously unused groove in the front panel, and a 16:9 TFT display has joined the object on the sly. The legendary slider control formerly used to control the radio tuning now becomes both a display and controller for a whole slew of functions. Consequently, instead of “tuning” the label now reads “anything”."
Objects by Dennis De Bel
Dennis juxtaposes multiple objects within one another to create new hybrids. Again, you can imagine these changes extending the life of both objects, while breathing new purpose into them.
Hulger produces classic phones that plug into modern technology. They remind you of their Bakelite ancestors, but plug into modern mobile phones. That juxtaposition of the classic with the contemporary is compelling somehow. I think originally they repurposed real phones, giving them new life by freeing them from their legacy technology. Now they make their phones from scratch, but they are still beautifully crafted, with longevity in mind.
I like the general-purpose feel of this device, designed to accept all kinds of inputs and outputs, combined with its very retro feel. It feels like a mysterious black box. I can imagine that it might be a device used throughout the years by a family for a broad number of purposes (although I don’t know what those purposes are), each new generation hacking it for unexpected, contemporary needs.
LifeWriter by Christa Sommerer and Laurent Mignonneau
Again, an old object given new life, this time using a typewriter as a user interface to drive a Game of Life. I have an old L.C.Smith No. 5 typewriter at home that I keep for purely aesthetic reasons. The idea that it could have a second life as a game device, as a competitor to my XBox, is compelling.
A magnificent effort of repurposing. Starting with a warehouse of discarded chairs, Martino combined elements of different models to create something new. Each chair keeps aspects of its old personality, combined in a new and schizophrenic way, creating unexpected new visual and physical experiences.
Here’s Tom’s repurposing of an old meter, coupled with a clock face, that tells him how many kilobytes of e-mail he’s received. I don’t detect any sentimentality from Tom towards the artefact here, but I like the idea that it might have passed down through his family, and this new use has kept it alive.
Michael Shorter, an intern with me in Cambridge, designed something similar during his time with us, this time repurposing an old voltmeter to tell us something about the use of electricity in our lab. Again, that connection between longevity and ecology seems like a positive one.
This project is the simple combination of a block of walnut and a old horn found at an antique store. Again, I like the implication of the reuse of an old family object, but I also like the idea that there’s nothing digital about this set up. The sound travels from the iPhone to the speaker through a simple channel carved in the wood. It’s a way of carrying sound that seems unbreakable because of it’s technological simplicity.
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]
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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):
The sun starting to set across London. I particularly like the brightly lit greenhouse on a rooftop in the centre of the second shot:
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.
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.