Digital heirlooms, your lifetime on a chip

When Richard Banks’ grandfather died about five years ago, he left behind a suitcase filled with hundreds of photographs, many depicting his time as a pilot during World War II. Looking through those images made Banks think about the legacy he would leave his daughter, and about the physical limitations of photos and floppy disks that become obsolete as images and information are increasingly stored online.

“When my wife and I had our daughter, we became interested about our past. I create about 5,000 digital photos a year, so when I pass away I’ll leave my daughter about 200,000 digital photos,” said Banks, an interaction designer at Microsoft Research Cambridge’s Socio-Digital Systems group. “But there’s not the same sense of filtering with digital photos that you have with analogue. My grandfather chose the pilot photos because they were important to him.”

The amount of sentimental and practical information each person has on their computer, cell phone, digital camera, and other devices is burgeoning. Banks is part of a broad effort by multidisciplinary Microsoft research groups worldwide to better understand what items people consider important to be preserved, stored and retrieved for dozens, if not hundreds of years.

Though the research is at an early stage, future heirloom devices could include an electronic picture frame with software that lets people access a lifetime of images of a loved one.

Projects in development include the Timecard, in which photos of a person are grouped by date on a timeline for easy access; Backup Box, which automatically keeps all Twitter messages; and Digital Slide Viewer, which is a backup for a Flickr photo account. A recently completed project, Family Archive, allows people to combine various media, including digital photos, scanned-in physical objects and videos, into an electronic album that they can share.

A related undertaking by Microsoft Research’s Integrated Systems Group is looking at how to preserve digital content for hundreds of years. It is involved in Europe’s PLANETS project, a four-year research effort co-funded by the EU Framework programme and coordinated by the British Library, which is examining methods, tools and services to characterise and preserve digital content.

The projects will provide intelligence to Microsoft product groups on how people use prototype heirloom devices in their homes, what they cherish and why. 

“All of us leave behind a digital footprint,” explains Abigail Sellen, principal researcher and co-manager of the Socio-Digital Systems group. “People want more intelligent ways to browse through a lot of stuff, like a timeline they can stretch or shrink. But they don’t want to have to do the categorisation work. Eventually we’ll have an ecosystem of devices at home to do these things rather than having everything in a PC.”

Sellen says her group is looking for ways to do looser categorisations so consumers can be more playful with them. One idea is using a sort of electronic box where vacation memories, for example, could be stored.

All of the information must be organised and integrated – and privacy issues must be addressed, says Sellen, who anticipates the technology could be on the market and taking off in about ten years.

Understanding how to preserve digital content is complicated, notes Natasa Milic-Frayling, a principal researcher at Microsoft Research Cambridge. “We need to assure that we can read it again, so a document can be seen 50 to 100 years from now. If you want to preserve the medical record of a child, you really need to plan for the next 100 years. This is a physical and software challenge.” Current work is focused on software emulators or converters that allow old applications to run on newer hardware.

“In normal life there are rules,” says Milic-Frayling. “In the digital world, we’re just shaping them.”

This article was originally published in Futures Magazine. Click here to view or download the full issue.

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