Oct 23, 2014

Your Future Memories Are At Stake

In the Digital Age, we're snapping more photos than ever before -- weddings, babies, and nights-out, not to mention cats, food porn, and selfies.

We take photographs to capture a moment we don't want to forget; to help our future selves remember a life well-lived. And now, without the worry of having to develop and print film, we've increased our camera clicks, flooded with the confidence of preserving not just a few of our memorable moments, but, honestly, all of them. But before you hit photo capture once more, hang tight -- it might not actually be the case that all this snapping is helping our memories live. In fact, it might be killing them. And researchers are trying to figure out a way to stop it.

A recent study out of Fairfield University suggests that taking digital photographs actually diminishes our memory. That’s right, makes it worse. What we have here is forgetfulness being enforced on two accounts.

First, and probably no surprise, the action of taking a photo distracts us from physically instilling the moment into the hardwiring of our brain. In the time normally spent capturing the moment in our neurons, we're thinking, “I want to take a picture of this.” Whipping out our camera, setting up the shot, we become more focused on the act of capturing a copy of the moment with our camera rather than the event itself in our brain. The moment is recorded in pixels, but it’s not imprinted in our brain's neuronal wiring.

Secondly, our future recollection of the moment (now haphazardly hard-wired in our brain) is lessened because of the medium we’re using -- digital pixels as opposed to physical prints.

How come? Well, remember when we used to develop film, and organize our 4x6s into albums -- books we later flipped through with family, friends, and embarrassed dates? Viewing those baby pictures in an album is what’s called a typical "external cue.” Researchers say external cues are critical to helping us recall past events, for a variety of reasons.

One, we tend to look at physical prints more often -- maybe because back in the day of film, unless you were a photographer, you probably would have limited the number of rolls you snapped, making them easier to look through. (I mean, really, can you actually look at the 1,323 digital photos snapped on your trip to Thailand?) Secondly, the more senses that we engage when trying to recall something, the better chance we have of remembering. With photographs, there might be the smell of the dusty cabinet where the print is kept, or the smell of the print itself, which might indicate how old it is and place it in time; there's the feel and size of the print; there might be the group gathered to look at the print that helps fill out memories with storytelling. Some of these things never happen with digital photos, or at least much more rarely. All of which presents researchers with a question: we can’t stop selfie-fever, but is there a way for our digital documentation to act on our memories like physical photos? For digital pixels to turn on external cues? Or activate more senses?

It turns out, there might be, with items called Technology Heirlooms

These devices, all in different stages of development, try to make digital memories physical, and more often seen, to help them help us remember. Here are just a few of our favorites. What tech heirloom would you use -- or create? Tell us below!

Digital Slide Viewer
This is the digital slide viewer.
Richard Banks

When you upload your photos to Flickr you can organize them into “photostreams,” which are basically digital photo albums. In the prototype of the Digital Slide Viewer, each physical slide card has an RFID chip embedded in it, which is like a teeny-tiny hard drive that you can assign to a specific Flickr photostream. This Flickr photostream will live offline, in the chip (no WIFI required). Then, there’s an RFID reader in the handheld viewer, so when you place the slide into the viewer, the album tag embedded in the chip is read, allowing you to project your photos. Call it futuristic old-fashioned slideshows.

Sonic Gems
Sonic gems is a tech heirloom that is based in audio.
Microsoft Research Cambridge / Digital World Research Centre

The idea behind Sonic Gems comes from knowledge about how audio and memory are intertwined, that is audio cues are very good external cues. The “gems,” modeled after precious stones and seen in the above sketch, are worn as pendants in a (unisex) bracelet. An audio chip embedded in the gems continuously records in real-time (with a slight buffer, up to one minute behind). There are two buttons on the gem, which act as two settings. One is an auto-pilot kind of mode that preserves unpredictable moments, like when your baby says her first word, by recording continuously; the other is more of a manual mode that interrupts the continuous recording at your command to document an upcoming moment, say when you specifically ask your friend to say something nice about you, at your discretion.

If you want to keep a recorded moment, take the gem out of the bracelet right after it's recorded, and place it in the provided ceramic bowl, which, of course, isn’t your ordinary piece of pottery -- it is programmed with sensors around the rim that activate the audio in the gems as you reach in and pluck out a stone. Meaning, as the gems are removed from the bowl, they turn “on,” and their audio starts to stream out. Want to re-mix your memories? The designers say you can create a sonic medley of memories by rummaging through the gems in the bowl, causing many of them to start “talking” at once. (Unfortunately for all those audio-philes out there, Sonic Gems didn’t make it to the prototype phase.)

Lovers’ Box
The Lovers Box is a tech heirloom designed for couples

Based on an earlier prototype developed with a media technician, Lovers’ Box taps into the memories of couples by preserving and distributing recorded memories through multimedia. These messages can be in any media form, like an audio piece, a slideshow, or digital artwork. As you can see in the photos above, the box has two important components -- the box itself, which comes with a tiny computer inside, and a special key loaded with a hidden RFID chip. What do you do with them? Let’s say you wanted to make a slideshow of you and your partner to present to them on your wedding day. Normally, you’d turn to powerpoint, maybe iMovie, to edit together a presentation that would be projected on the wall. And while that’s sweet, it’s got all the feel of a bar mitzvah presentation. (And then what would you do with it afterwards, keep it on a hard drive? Lame.) But what if you could present them with a special delivery? A Lovers’ Box. With Lovers’ Box, you embed the slideshow from the computer onto the key. Then send your partner the set. Your love would use the key to unlock the box, whereupon once opened, the hidden computer boots up, playing out the slideshow on the surface of the inside of the box. The designers focused on couples because of the researcher’s thesis interest, but it also would warm all of your family and friend’s hearts if they received a box and key to a message you left them.

Backup Box
The Backup Box treats your twitter feed like a diary.
Richard Banks / Abigail Sellen 

Many families pass down diaries from generation to generation, allowing families to explore the significant (and mundane) moments of their ancestors. In many ways, Twitter is a diary, albeit a very social, open one. The prototype of Backup Box takes people’s Twitter feeds and places it offline in a lovely wooden box with interactive touch screen. It lets you and others who pass by it in your house go back and reminisce on those 140 character moments, by clicking on an icon. See all of those flower-like icons in the photo above? Those represent your individual tweets; with a touch of the finger, when you click on them, the flower magnifies, expands, and a message containing your tweet pops up. When you're not scrolling through your past tweets, there is a wooden top to place on top of the box so it maintains a decorative look, rather than appearing as a boring, idle screen. 


*For more on Technology Heirlooms, check out the field of study Human Computer Interaction, composed of psychologists, designers, computer scientists, and sociologists focusing on the interaction between people and computers thinking about how human memory and technology connect. 

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