A Tangible Facebook Timeline You Can Hold In Your Hand

A Tangible Facebook Timeline You Can Hold In Your Hand

PSFK spoke with the creator of ChronoTape, an interface designed to enable the physical representation of family history, about its creation and how Facebook's timeline could possibly have a real world counterpart.

Kyana Gordon
  • 5 march 2012

Designed by recent PhD graduate, Peter Bennett and influenced by elements of ancient scrolls, microfilm and and reel-to-reel tape machines, the ChronoTape is a tangible timeline for family history research, developed as part of the PATINA project, within the Bristol Interaction & Graphics group. The device allows you to interact with data using a physical object and explores how a tangible interface can control time by essentially transforming it into something you can hold and manipulate. Deliberately simple, its internal makeup consists of a PS3 eye webcam for tracking the tape position, a battery powered pico projector for projecting onto the underside of the tape, USB hub for the memory stick, USB light to illuminate the markers on the underside of the tape,  mirror, an Arduino, three arcade buttons, and quite a lot of empty space (to give room for the projection to focus).

Here’s how it works: the add person button places a human icon on the tape to indicate an event (birth, death, marriage etc), pencil notes means one writes directly on the ChronoTape using pencil, the text note allows you to type onto the tape, and add a photo by capturing a shot of your old photo or reference material. PSFK spoke with Peter to gain more insight into ChronoTape as a research tool, combining physical and digital elements, his thoughts on Facebook’s timelines, and the use of tangible interfaces.

With the explosive availability of online genealogical records, what did you hope to achieve with ChronoTape as a research tool for family history?

The ChronoTape has been designed as a note-taking tool for genealogical research, rather than as a new type of database. The aim is to complement current research practices, rather than attempt to replace them with something new. The aim of the chronotape is to encourage the capture of notes, scribblings and ‘working out,’ which is something that tends to be neglected in many online genealogical tools. It’s hoped that this buildup of ‘research patina’ will be useful to future researchers (or the same researcher at a later date).

The project marries the physical and digital in a unique way, ultimately taking a deep look at how records are produced, maintained and ultimately inherited. How did you set out to change how the process of genealogy  is recorded?

The aim is really to bring back physical note-taking, whilst keeping all of the powerful features of digital genealogy. So rather than creating a purely digital body of research we are encouraging researchers to also leave a physical legacy of research. An example scenario is that a few spools of ChronoTape may be left in an attic, where they may be found many years after and inspire further research on a family’s history.

What are your thoughts on the Facebook timeline, and do you see it evolving into a genealogy tool?

Good question! I’ve been thinking about this for a while now. One thing that’s interesting about the Facebook timeline is that many people dislike it because it puts too much of their past on show. This is almost a case of the timeline doing its job too well (in terms of efficiently displaying a lot of information). This problem doesn’t really exist with the ChronoTape, as your data only exists on a single USB stick, and on the tape itself, so the data is only as public as you make it. One upside of this visibility is that it allows you to easily curate your past, and edit what appears on your timeline, whereas previously the data was available but hidden.

I think the information on Facebook will potentially be an amazing tool for future family historians, if it is still around and accessible in 100 years time. Having this level of detail about someones life would be a great bonus to building up a picture of an ancestor. The ChronoTape project addresses the idea of data longevity by attempting to allow the data on the tape to degrade as gracefully as possible. Firstly, by making the data physically present on the tape, there is a chance the paper will survive (and still be readable) in the future. Secondly, all of the digital information is stored in a very simple folder structure on a USB stick, which should hopefully remain readable for the foreseeable future. One thing I’ve been considering is taking my Facebook timeline and parsing it for use on the ChronoTape. This way I’d be able to create a ‘time-capsule’ of my Facebook data, consisting of a physical timeline and a digital counterpart.

Please tell us a bit about your fascination with tangible user interfaces and why it’s your medium of choice. 

My fascination with tangible user interfaces began when I had a chance to play with James Patten’s “AudioPad” at Ars Electronica 2003. The ability to physically move blocks around to make music was completely new to me, and completely blew me away. This initial experience has stayed with me, and I’ve tried to capture the same sense of excitement in my own instruments and designs. The great thing about tangible interfaces is that they can really make the computer seem magical, making simple objects come alive and blurring the boundary between the physical and the digital.


Thanks, Pete! (And be sure to check out his website for more specific details on the construction).


Peter Bennett

+Electronics & Gadgets
+facebook timeline
+Market Research

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