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June 12, 2013

The Omnimuseum Project recognizes even the most common things in our world as part of a vast network of informal learning opportunities, rich with history, science and culture. Many emerging technologies are setting the stage for content to be delivered anywhere, associated with selected events, objects or locations. But our world is a big place and the responsibility of developing content for everything is beyond imaginable, especially when we think of museum content development in its traditional sense. But, how information is gathered and generated today is changing. Gone are the days when history was written by a select few, where media giants and major institutions determined what was fit to print or display. In today's emerging DIY cultures, most of which gain a global presence via the internet, social histories, stories and meanings produced by ordinary people, are quickly becoming incorporated into the official records of our past with as much vigor as those produced by scholars. And herein lies a potential solution to how such a daunting task of developing content for everything may be achieved. 

In this feature, Chris Speed and Jane Macdonald, both from the University of Edinburgh, discuss their pioneering (yet playful) work on a project called TOTeM (Tales of Things and Electronic Memory), a platform that helps turn our everyday objects into vessels of memory and sources for storytelling.

TOTeM (Tales of Things and Electronic Memory)

By Chris Speed and Jane Macdonald

In April 2010, a group of trans-disciplinary academics launched the web project www.talesofthings. The site offers a simple but novel approach to recording social histories and a playful critique of the tagging culture that is associated with the emerging concept known as the ‘Internet of Things’. The Internet of Things has the potential to transform how we will treat objects, care about their origin, and use them to find other objects. Everything will be searchable and findable, and, subsequently, the shopping experience may never be the same. The concept of throwing away objects may become a thing of the past as other people find new uses for old things. 

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Tales of Things screen shot (image courtesy of the authors)
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Shelflife iphone app (Image courtesy of the authors)

It has been suggested that people in general surround themselves with between 1,000 and 5,000 objects, many of which are discarded and replaced through consumption and subsistence. However, some objects are lost, stolen, or mislaid forever and are irreplaceable because of the memories they are associated with. But in the context of an Internet of Things, this status of absolute loss is already becoming a thing of the past, as an artifact’s data is likely to remain.

The Tales of Things platform allows anybody to attach web content (text, image, video and audio) to an artifact through the generation of a unique QR barcode that the owner is encouraged to stick to their thing. When scanned by somebody else using a smart phone, media is launched and the object can be seen/heard to tell a story about the memories that it is associated with.

Our reasoning was simple, that the existing public use of tags (RFID, traditional barcodes and two dimensional) is based upon a ‘read only’ relationship. And although the web savvy amongst us can generate a QR code and associate it with web-based media, for many people the scanning of codes is a practice reserved for people working on super market checkouts and in passport control booths. As well as offering a place in which unique codes are generated and allow stories to be associated with artifacts, Tales of Things allows any other beholder the ability to ‘add a tale’ to someone else’s ‘thing’. By scanning a tag through the phone App, or by visiting the website, artifacts become ‘writeable’ and ‘open’ to further association. This is was a critical dimension to the projects politics, that lessons learnt through Web 2.0 should be integral to any Internet of Things. 

The project was part of a research group run by TOTeM which is a collaboration between 5 UK Higher Education institutions (University of Edinburgh, Brunel University, University College London, University Of Dundee and University of Salford), funded by the Digital Economy Research Councils UK.

Charity Shops

One area of particular interest to the team was the second-hand retail market, typified by traditional charity retail outlets, car boot sales and online market places such as eBay. We were interested in investigating how shopping experiences are mediated when provenance information about an object is provided via a digital object memory that was accessible via QR Codes and RFID tags. A series of three interventions, leading toward a regional roll-out across the UK charity Oxfam, began with the RememberMe arts project at the Whitworth Park shop in Manchester during The Future Everything festival in 2010. For the first of two weeks stories of donated items were associated to items with Tales of Things QR and RFID tags.

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Tales of Things at Future Everything Festival (Image courtesy of the authors)

These donated items and their tags were then placed amongst stock items on the Oxfam shop shelves and tags allowed shoppers to listen to the stories through loud speakers or more discretely through their smart phoneWhilst doing the quarterly accounts the regional manager to the North West found a 52% spike in sales. Intrigued by this, the team were invited by Oxfam UK to develop a similar experience for the high profile Oxfam Curiosity Shop that appeared in Selfridges, Oxford Street, London in April 2011 and sold items donated from celebrities. The annual event generates hundreds of thousands of pounds simply due to the celebrity related provenance of each item.

Gaining wide press attention, the Curiosity Shop intervention galvanized the belief that personal stories transformed the value of a second-hand item. The third iteration was to develop an Oxfam product that was powered by TOTeM technology but was tailored for high street use in their 650 high street shops. Launched under the Oxfam brand as 'Shelflife', the TOTeM team worked with Oxfam user experience and web designers to develop a free iPhone app and an extension to the www.oxfam.org.uk website. For twelve weeks from February 2012 ten shops in the Manchester area carried out a full pilot with Shelflife branded tags, points of sale literature, posters and shop manager / volunteer support.

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Tales of Things at Future Everything Festival (Image courtesy of the authors)

The Oxfam Shelflife app used QR codes to enable the public to discover the stories behind Oxfam's donated, ethical and Unwrapped products, and even share their own stories for the items they donated. The scheme allowed donors to attach a QR code to their donated object, and using the free Oxfam Shelflife app on their iPhone, share the story behind the item for the next owner to discover. Shoppers who visited the participating Oxfam stores could then scan the QR code on the item, via the app, which then took them to the unique story behind the object. Usually QR codes direct users to a website or URL but the Oxfam Shelflife app enabled users to engage and interact with the technology, taking QR codes on to a new level.

National Museum of Scotland

An equally rich arena in which material artifacts are a primary currency is that of museums. A museum’s collection represents its focus and expertise, and the way that it articulates the connections between the artifacts that constitute its collection characterizes its identity. Consequently, and in every sense of the term, a museum is the sum of its parts. Aware of the importance of 'things' in the museum context, the TOTeM team established projects within the museums and heritage context across the UK to explore different potentials for our technology.

The National Museums Scotland, whose flagship museum is based in the centre of Edinburgh, were keen to disrupt the traditional power relationship between curator and public that has historically only flowed one way: read only with the curator as author to public as reader. TOTeM was invited to tag over 80 objects with QR codes in the permanent exhibition: Scotland, a Changing Nation. A series of workshops and events also explored how the 'write-back' feature of the technology allowed the memories of audiences that described how they remembered using, playing and sharing objects become part of the patina of an object within the museum’s collection.

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The Oxfam Shelflife app (Image courtesy of the authors)

Each of these QR codes linked to unique footage on the object ranging from films from the Scottish Screen Archive to images from SCRAN and the Scottish Life Archive, through to interviews and publicity material. The project was launched to the public in April 2011 as part of the Edinburgh International Science Festival and was also part of the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival (SMHAFF).  For the workshops we developed our ‘ghost objects’, a collection of 6 completely white artifacts. The artifacts were selected from familiar objects that related to the gallery: for example a rotary dial telephone and a dancing shoe. Visitors were encouraged to take a QR code and attach it to the corresponding object and then use the Tales of Things app to ‘record’ a memory on to that object. Within a short amount of time each object became a host to many memories. Originally blank, and without noticeable characteristics, the white artefact became a physical manifestation of the element from Scottish history. The ‘ghost objects’ can also be understood to be ‘physical wikis’ to collate public relations with objects and offer an open memorial for personal connection.

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Ghost sewing machine (image courtesy of the authors)

In addition we were invited to run a set of events as part of BBC Hands on History for which we organized two events- the Thingema (or Object Cinema) and the Memory Mix. The Thingema was a cinema viewing of films from the Scottish Screen Archive that was accompanied by some of the physical artifacts that the films were attached to, allowing people to write on to the objects whilst watching the films. We then used these memories, which had been recorded as audio clips in the Memory Mix. At the Memory Mix we screened the archive films, which were accompanied by a soundtrack of stories of people who recalled their relationships with the artifacts, mixed live by a DJ. The mix of spoken personal anecdotes against the historical marketing music and narratives provided a complex temporal mash up.

Since the initial project with the National Museum of Scotland, the University of Edinburgh developed a further iteration of talking objects with the Recommended Relics project from January to April this year. Recommended Relics created a smart audio guide for the National Museum of Rural Life Scotland using Android phones and Near Field Technology. The guide provided additional information on objects by the visitor scanning RFID tags with a smartphone through an audio tour and most importantly also recommended other artifacts the visitor might be interested in. This was a pilot project and we now aim to develop the further so that once a user scanned their first object, the database would suggest a series of paths to take them through the museum linking objects to each other according to themes, dates, social history etc. Over time the possibility of the tours will become more complex as participants link their own objects according to personal ties. Recommender systems are popular with sites such as Amazon, who use social analytics, buyers’ profiles and habits to propose future purchases. This new technology would be of particular benefit for when visitors are short of time when going to a museum and just want to see things that are of special interest to them rather than spending a day in the museum, so proves useful for visitors just in a city for a week end. It can also link to further resources they can look into when they get home or encourage them to keep a dialogue with the museum. Visitors would also be able to create their own tours of museum collections and become a curator for a day, this data will also provide the museum with information on the sorts of objects that are popular with certain groups as they can store and analyze data of objects which have been scanned.

The Tales of Things research project has now officially ended but the website continues and has just been re-launched with a new look and we continue to work in the field of the internet of things developing new projects and continuing with our existing partners as well as creating new links.































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