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This time last year I was deep in third year project stress at university.  Given the guideline that we could do ‘anything’ there was initially quite a bit of mental flailing.  Finally however, I landed on an area of personal interest – memory, what it means to us and how it is changing in the digital age.

Why memory?

Memory maketh the man – we are who we are thanks to our experiences.  They’re sometimes comforting, sad, traumatic and always make good anecdotes.  We obviously don’t carry all our memories in crystal clear form around in our head, but they’re there, lurking – all they need is a trigger to bring them out.

The old cliches of the smell of fresh cut grass awakening memories of never-ending, hot summer days or a song unleashing a flood of emotions about a long lost love are all true.  Sights, sounds, touch, smells are all powerful triggers for the mind.

Digital effects

More and more of these triggers are becoming digitised – Facebook albums, Youtube videos, blogs, libraries of music, the list goes on.  A simmering, unorganised mass of triggers, clues and  stimuli to wade through.  Brains remember all (in theory anyway), they just need the right trigger, the key to unlock a memory.  In the digital world, there is no focus to these, no way in except clicking aimlessly through Facebook albums and waiting for whatever memory hits first.

The project

Possessing a bad memory and an unshaken belief in the good of tech (Skynet aside…), I looked to technology to provide solutions to help my brain out.  This combined with a passing interest in my roots, vintage possessions and a childhood visiting too many museums, led to the first seeds of an idea.  Using objects as a trigger point for memories.  An idea I ran with to try and create something that would benefit not just me, but have real utility for a community of users and have the ability to grow and adapt to suit their needs.

This semi-lengthy quote sums my project up better than I ever could now, many months after the event!  It comes from a paper written jointly by me and my supervisor about my project and submitted to the International Symposium on VAST (Virtual Reality, Archaeology and Cultural Heritage):

The study of material culture provides complex models on how people interact with objects. Objects or artefacts often symbolise something more than their intrinsic nature, and this is often preserved over the years, giving future generations an appreciation and a sense of value that has evolved through time. Through personal association objects gain subjective meaning based on the memories that we have of them but such memories are generally hidden and intangible.

We present a way of storing associated memories with objects. By using RFID tags, objects can be linked to a database containing basic metadata about the object. To this is added personal memories of the owner in such forms as video, images, text, or voice, and these are visualised by calculating the importance to the owner. This is then extended further via social networking so that the owner’s personal set of memories can be linked to those of other people, allowing multiple objects and memories to be explored. By exploiting the links between objects and memories, a unique connection is formed between the physical and virtual worlds, connecting a tactile object to a wealth of virtual information.

Memories can be re-visited by reading the RFID tag, which will then allow for all the associated information about it to be viewed and explored. The system is suited both to personal users who wish to catalogue and research their possessions, and to the cultural heritage sector – as a way of tracking, cataloging and exploring museum pieces, or as a means of recording and displaying feedback from those who interact with the artefacts today.

In short -
To organise an unstructured world, there needs to be a way to sort, a way to find the relevant and discard the rest. A way in and guide through the mess – my chosen way in was physical objects.

Memories make objects become alive, making them more interesting, more relevant and imbued with meaning.  Recording these memories online (whether by aggregating pre-existing content or inserting it manually) and linking the object uniquely with it, means an object can act as a key to virtual groups of memories.

Every individual that interacts with a object adds their own interpretation and meaning.  The interlinking of these memories and views give the object a new identity, a “soul” almost, something that sums up the essence of an object.  The object ceases to simply be a thing but becomes something of significance.

This is an area with huge potential, both with personal and cultural implications.  How it can allow us to “see history” and help us remember.  It’s also one that can only improve as technology does – with the addition of augmented reality, NFC, object recognition and things that haven’t even been imagined yet.

Is that it?

This touches on just a tiny portion of what I find interesting – the frankly huge areas of emotion and memory and how technology interacts with these.  The “girly” side of technology if you will…exploring the wooly areas of emotion and feeling.  Areas we don’t yet fully understand in psychological terms, let alone in how how the digital world is aiding, hindering, changing and evolving them.
In other words: expect to see more blog posts from me on the topic.  Likely including a part 2 to this, exploring project findings, impact, questions it raised and just why I think it’s an area with huge potential…

Other interesting (semi) related things…

BBC – A history of our world – telling a history of our world with objects – Fantastic interactive site exploring historical artifacts and what they mean to people.  Especially love the idea of making history by adding in your own object, although they do appear to be of historical rather than personal importance.

The disposable memory project – leaving disposable cameras around the world, and telling their story – This taps in nicely to the idea of each individual adding their own story to an object, even if in a literal sense here.

Hitotoki – Project collecting stories of singular experiences tied to cities – Linking memories of places to maps in an online setting,  Exploring subjective memories in the public space.

Tara Bloom

Tara Bloom

A cynical & geeky cave dweller, Tara often ventures out to @madebymany to do a myriad of useful things. These include, but are not limited to: research, strategy, scrum mastering and propagation. Looking surprisingly like her avatar, she can often be found loitering here: @scandaloust