Microsoft Research finds future value in family history

For those Microsoft Research staffers who work at the mothership in Redmond, the company's annual TechFest is a festive and busy week of chatting with the people you really meant to spend more time with during the rest of the year. But if you're from out of town -- in from one of Microsoft's five satellite facilities in Beijing, Bangalore, Cambridge-UK, Cambridge-US, or Mountain View -- this may be one of a very few opportunities all year for you to connect with, and very likely show up, your out-of-town colleagues.

Take for instance the UK-based Socio-Digital Systems group, working thousands of miles from the offline conversations that happen on the Redmond campus. Gathered in the "Digital Past to Digital Presence" booth at the recent 'Fest, the gear the UK group had to show didn't make tiny bubbles float in virtual airspace or synchronize several social networks. Actually, its job was to give a place and presence for people's own history in the here and now.

And for a company that typically plugs the power of perpetual and often incessant connectivity, most of the SDS group's devices not only acknowledged that some people don't like to be plugged in, but... well, they allowed it, even embraced the notion.

The interface of an experimental device called TimeCard adheres to the structure of that harshest of mistresses, time. The gadget, which in prototype was about the size and shape of a medium-sized photo frame, organizes your photos, your scans, and your other digital files along a timeline, which can further be sorted by other criteria (e.g., location) and is navigated by touchscreen.

The researcher who demonstrated it for me had his grandfather's life in there -- not only photos, but his service records and the like, all organized along the long line of his years. Other peoples' timelines came and went, and at the very end, there was a photo of a very old man with a very young child -- the researcher's daughter, who "met" her great-grandfather with just six months to spare. The sliver of timeline said it all.

I loved it. And your real social networks -- not those mokes you follow on Twitter, but your family and friends -- just may love it too, and more importantly may be able to use it without making you weep for the gene pool from whence you sprang.

Another of this group's prototypes, called CellFrame, was made of plywood -- a word I'm not entirely sure you're even allowed to say in ritzy, enviro-active Redmond.

CellFrame's the one you want to give to your older relatives -- not because the prototype I saw was shaped to look like a 60s television console (albeit one not much bigger than your iPhone), but because it handles the one thing your older relatives would brave the Internet to get, without making them get on the Internet: photos. Each CellFrame is dedicated to one viewer, utilizes the mobile-phone network, and receives photos and short text and e-mail messages from whoever knows how to reach it.

The research team notes that it can also handle simple return messaging, but my vision for a device like this dwarfs anything that can be accomplished with mere texting: Resting on my grandmother's living-room table, Just Working, and giving us something else to talk about. Offline.

It's hard to imagine a circumstance under which it's nice that computers might encourage a bit of disorganization, especially where family and memories are concerned, but watching Family Archive in action I wonder if using a boxes-and-attics visual metaphor really could have gone anywhere else. (As one researcher put it, "started organizational, ended playful.")

Family Archive looks quite a bit like other Surface-based wares on the...er, surface -- in other words, a table with a flat, multitouch top. But this interface replicates not only the way one stores souvenirs and photos in marked boxes (yes, physical souvenirs; the table-like prototype included a camera for photographing non-digital objects, and could one day include actual 3D scan capability) but how one deals with boxes. We dump them out and photos and objects fly all over the screen. We sort objects into piles, look more closely at some, set others aside.

This table-top experiment is still a work in progress, and I'd love to see it add the ability to annotate items or link items together (e.g., the front and back of a scanned postcard), but the sloppy serendipitous charm of the interface sells the concept. Sifting through old boxes in the attic is restful and stirs memories and mental connections; so does Family Archive, without also stirring dust.

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.

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