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 Often it is superseded by something better or cooler, like the newest phone that comes along, or a change in format such as the move from VHS to DVD.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.
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.
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.
One of the tongue-in-cheek ideas I’ve presented a few times when talking about Technology Heirlooms is the idea that the way in which virtual things are arranged may carry as much meaning, sentimentally, as the things themselves. This isn’t unlike a place, and the arrangement of things in it (think “Grandad’s shed/workshop”) being a strong source for reminiscing, more so than any individual tool in it.
I’ve shown the following thumbnail sketch to illustrate this. The scenario for this sketch is that you inherit a PC from a relative who has passed away. Rather than simply sorting through, deleting and keeping the content, you start to host their PC on your own desktop as a virtual copy. The icon lives on your machine as a reminder of them, and their PC becomes a place that is kept intact, and that you can “visit” whenever you want. This presupposes that the choices that your relative made in the arrangement of their digital stuff has value in and of itself – that the desktop wallpaper they used or the way they set up their folders tells you something about them and their life.
Although I’ve always thought this idea was a little speculative, and used it primarily to make a point, I came across the Salmon Rushdie Archives at Emory University (vie New York Times), which really describes something similar. This is an academic resource, held at the University’s Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library, that, in addition to storing the more traditional paper based manuscripts and notebooks, virtually hosts 4 of the Apple computers used by Rushdie to author his books. The implication of the following video is that there’s real value in seeing that Rushdie, for example, kept copious notes using the Mac’s Sticky Notes application, or used Eudora for e-mail. I like the way that the narrator describes “peeking into Rushdie’s wastebasket”, which makes it sound as socially unacceptable as dumpster diving.
Some quick notes from my visit to the Royal College of Art to see the Impact! exhibition. This presented a series of projects in which RCA-connected designers (linked primarily with the Design Interactions department) were put together with scientists working on projects funded by the EPSRC. The overarching goal, as with much of the work on Design Interactions students, is to draw attention to, and help the public imagine, the potential impact of new forms of science on our futures through the development of artefacts and stories that help us see forward.
In some cases, the projects seemed even more ambitious, namely to help further the actual science. There is a reflective thing going on here, of course, where this isn’t just about communicating outwards to the public. Much of the works looks inward, too, allowing scientists themselves to see the potential impact of their own work, enabling a deeper form of insight onto what it is they’re doing (for better or worst).
First, a gratuitous shot of my daughter enjoying the multi-media experience of Zoe Papadopoulou’s Nuclear Dialogues.
Fabulous Fabbers, from David Benque, really caught my attention. David imagines a radical shifting in the way we acquire our “things” brought on by new fabrication technologies (such as 3D printing), new ecological imperatives, new forms of technological crafting and so on. In his project he imagine nomadic factories that, like the big top circus, travel from town to town producing and replicating a communities needs on demand.
Pathogen Hunter by Susana Soares and Mikael Metthey. A beautiful and fictional set of tools for the budding microbe hunter.
Revital Cohen’s Phantom Recorder. A device for catching the electrical echoes of phantom limbs (the feeling that a limb is still there after it has been lost).
James Auger’s Happylife is exploring the use of thermal imaging technology as a security instrument that, through heat signatures of the body, can assess a person’s physiological state, and therefore potentially the subtle cues that might give away the mental state. Could imagery like this identify the guilty? This is a working system. As you stand in front of the camera (at the bottom-right of the first image) your face appears on the large screen, freezes for a few seconds, then the dials on the device in the second image start to turn. I like how James has left their meaning ambiguous. They’re not labelled. To some extent that speaks to the tension between the confidence we seem to have in technology by default, that it CAN do this sort of prediction accurately, and the reality that in the end we’re assigning deeply meaningful personal traits to the random changes in digits.
The 5th Dimensional Camera from Jon Ardern and Anab Jain. As usual, Anab’s work is beautifully supported by storytelling. This is a fictional camera that “sees” into 50 parallel dimensions at once, through the “power” of quantum mechanics. The work tells the story of 3 test subjects who live with the camera, each of which use it in quite different ways. The subject in the second shot below points the camera at themselves, writing messages daily of what they’re feeling. This doesn’t feel unlike the sort of public naval-gazing that takes place on sights like Flickaday, except the audience in this case is the subject herself. The camera shows her, and a myriad of different messages, across all these parallel dimensions at the same moment. Each life and message is subtly or wholy different from the “original” as it corresponds to a different branch in space-time.
Policing Genes by Thomas Thwaites. Thomas imagines a world that doesn’t seem at all implausible, even as it seems slightly ridiculous. Field trials for plants that are being genetically modified to produce vaccines are already taking place. This is the science that Thomas is focussed on. He assumes perfectly reasonably that, humans being humans, this is simply another technology ripe for hacking, and that suburbs the world over will soon be filled with little patches of English Country Gardens, hiding away narcotics and controlled pharmaceuticals in their greenery. Naturally, the Police will need a team of crack bees to sniff them out.
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:
Highlight of the DIY for CHI workshop that I attended during the CHI 2009 conference was a little session done by Hannah Perner-Wilson on the design of flexible/fabric circuits. Just finding out about Velostat and Eeontex, two materials she uses heavily in her work, made it worth while. The later is particularly useful for making linear touch sensors.