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Intelligent Machines

Reorganize Your Past, Online

A Web service developed by Microsoft Research lets people curate their own personal history.

Microsoft researchers are set to launch Project Greenwich, a website that helps users assemble and chronologically organize content about a person, event, or any other subject. The site, to launch in beta on October 31, allows users to archive uploaded items, such as photos and scans of objects, alongside links to existing Web content around a horizontal timeline marked with dates. Different timelines can be combined and displayed on the same page or merged.

Project Greenwich users attach images, maps, and other visual content, plus accompanying text, to relevant dates on their timelines. Each entry, which a viewer can click to see in full, is illustrated with thumbnail pictures in chronological order to show it in the context of other entries, and potentially alongside other timelines.

“We are interested in the creative act of reflecting on the past,” says Richard Banks, lead designer on the project. “Actually sitting down and spending time creatively thinking about the past by making a photo album or a timeline is very different to existing online content being ordered chronologically.”

The website was provisionally called Timelines by its developers at Microsoft Research Cambridge, in England. This was hastily changed due to the similarity to Facebook’s new Timeline feature, which allows users to scroll chronologically through pictures, updates, and event listings related to their lives or those of their friends. Facebook’s format uses indicators such as the numbers of comments that content has attracted to automatically highlight key events. Users can also manually choose what should be included and left out.

Banks, who is a principal interaction designer in the Computer Mediated Living group at Microsoft Research Cambridge, was partly inspired by a suitcase of around 200 photographs left by his grandfather Ken Cook, who flew bombers over Germany during World War II, on his death in 2006. As an example of what can be done using Project Greenwich, he has created representations of his grandfather’s life merged with historical content on the Web about the war and the British Royal Air Force. “The ability to merge different timelines about, say, people and events creates interesting contrasts between authoritative and personal versions of events,” adds Banks.

For several years, Banks has been studying how the increasing digitization of our lives affects how we deal with the past, remember the dead, and create memorabilia. Project Greenwich builds on previous projects developed by the Computer Mediated Living group. One, called Family Archive, was an interactive tabletop touch screen with an integrated camera. It was designed to allow family members to organize their digital memorabilia alongside scans of physical artifacts. Banks also previously developed a prototype called Timecard, a digital photo frame with an interface that allowed users to create timelines about the people or events featured in the displayed images.

The beta launch will allow the team to gather data on how people think about time and reconstruct the past, what elements they choose to include, and the ways they contrast personal and existing content. This information will shape its ultimate form and potentially also inform the way other future Microsoft products are designed. Project Greenwich may ultimately become a commercial Microsoft website, or it could be integrated into new versions of existing products or entirely new products. This will be decided later, partly based on the response to the beta launch. Banks expects to include new features in later versions, such as the ability to print timelines created on the site; to embed them in documents, such as blogs or homework; and to allow for multiple individuals to contribute to the same entry.

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