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Mnemograph is a participatory installation that connects two people through the language of their memories.

Sitting at a one-person writing desk, a participant is invited to anonymously contribute a personal memory in the form of a handwritten note.  They insert their memory into a slot in the desk, and, through a process of automation, receive a print of someone else’s similar memory. Through this experience of anonymous exchange, Mnemograph creates brief moments of connection between untold stories, providing an uncanny glimpse into the private moments of another person. Its material — language — points to both the specificity and the sameness of the lives we live, and to our unique tendency as human beings to make meaning by connecting the dots.

Combining analog interactions and digital automation (in which the technology itself is obscured from view), Mnemograph poses questions about the relationship between technology and memory. What possibilities open up when we think about memory as an active process of creation rather than something fixed or static? How can a device illuminate the ways in which remembering is a generative act?

Media: Printer, document scanner, custom software, custom-built plywood desk, acrylic, paper, pens

More photos and documentation coming soon!

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The biggest challenge for me with my fabrication so far has been figuring out what exactly I want to create — a desk? a booth? a wall? a machine? With this kind of project, and in general, fabrication is so much more than sticking your project in an enclosure last minute; it’s really the part of the project that people see and interact with, and so it carries a huge statement about what the project says and is about. Very stressful.

I went through tons of rounds of sketching, first with my friend (and master fabricator) Luke Stern. We came up with the design for a kiosk-like machine, prototyped the scale in cardboard and started to plan my fabrication.

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The next day, I realized the form factor was wrong for the kind of experience I want to create (something more intimate that people spend time with) so I switched to the idea of creating a writing desk with all the hardware embedded.

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I’ve met a few times with Ben Light who, as always, has amazing suggestions and guidance both in terms of design and construction. I’m going to be creating the top part of a desk (essentially a box with all of my equipment inside) that I’ll put on pre-fab legs.

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Ben suggested I prototype in cardboard which I’ve been doing a ton of over the past few days. It’s really informed my decisions about scale, the placement of things, and been helpful in thinking through a series of challenge with the construction. Here are some highlights from my fabrication prototyping adventures.

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At Nick Hubbard’s suggestion, I went to look at an exhibition at Brooklyn Historical Society about letter writing. It gave me some great ideas about scale, as well as subtle visual (and aural) cues I can use to create the experience I want. I also visited an exhibition on the first floor designed by Potion that had some very satisfying tactile interactions. Pics below.

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Over the past few weeks, I’ve got the bulk of my code working. I still have to do my user testing and see all the ways that things can go wrong when humans interact with it, but the basic flow is up and running. I also may have to add some changes to the image processing (rotating etc.) depending on the final direction I use for my scanner. I have the code working with the Epson Inkjet printer, but I’ll no longer be using that one (printer saga is a whole other story).

Below are some videos of the following: getting my OCR to work, the first time my code worked (scan a memory –> pick a similar one –> send it to printer) and some snapshots of me taking apart my scanner so that I could hack the button. I eventually met with Eric Rosenthal who was able to help me rewire to an external button, because he is magic.

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I learned a ton about my project — what works, what doesn’t — at the Q&D show, so I decided to follow it up the next week with another user test. I began building my software immediately after (using NodeJS and a number of printing and file watching packages) but it wasn’t ready in time to test.

Alon had a great suggestion (and a great video to send me for inspiration) that I user test the core of my interaction in an analog way. So I built a machine interface out of cardboard and conducted a user test sitting behind it. Literally, I became the machine.

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Even though the conditions weren’t perfect, I emerged with a lot of questions and surprising observations about how people received my project. It also taught me a lot about the way I need to set up the environment of the installation to get the kinds of responses I want. Some (very belated) documentation is below.

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Quick and Dirty Show Prep

Over the past few weeks, I’ve spent most of my time building something to test at the Quick and Dirty show. Up until this point, all of my ‘prototypes’ were really just story collecting experiments with spreadsheets and cardboard boxes so it was nice to have a deadline for myself to actually build something interactive, even though it’s still far from the final form.

I made a poster for the show that illustrates the steps of the interaction. I also narrowed down aspects of the physical experience and decided I want the memories to be handwritten / printed and scanned in a device.

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I’ve collected a lot of memories from people over the past few weeks but hadn’t actually tried giving a memory back to the person submitting one so I knew I wanted to emulate this for the show. Even though my final input and output will be physical (a handwritten memory, and a printout of someone else’s handwritten memory), I decided to build a simple web prototype that would allow me to test primarily how people felt about the process of inputting a memory, and getting a memory back. This is basically the entire premise of my project, so it was important to me to test this mechanic to see if it worked at all. I was also curious to observe people in the act of writing their memories.

I made a quick prototype for the browser in which users select a prompt, type in a memory based on that prompt and get back a handwritten image of someone else’s memory when they submit. I pre-populated my database of memories with handwritten memories sourced from my friends, networks and supplemented by Amazon’s Mechanical Turk.

The live web prototype is here:
http://rlieberman.github.io/MemoryMachineDemoV1/

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User Testing and Feedback

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I had a number of things I wanted to get feedback on at the show. Primarily, I was interested in seeing how people felt about the relationship between their memory and the one they got back in the web demo. I also printed little cards with handwritten memories on them to give people a tactile sense of the output.

While people were testing my project, I took observations and timed the amount of time people spent writing. I also had a list of specific questions on hand in order to guide the feedback:

  • Does the interaction make sense?
  • Do you understand the relationship between input and output? Do you see a similarity or have any connection with it?
  • Do you like to choose your prompt versus having a single prompt?
  • Prompts – were they hard or easy to answer? Too specific? Do you need something more vague?
  • Did you want to share? What would make you more or less inclined to participate in this experience?
  • Did you like giving input by writing something?
  • Length of the interaction – Do you like the immediate reveal? Do you want to wait? How long does it take to reveal?
  • How inclined are you to participate in this experience? What would make you want to share a memory?
  • Do you want to see analysis of your own memories? or is there something magical about not knowing the basis of the match?
  • Did you feel like you got a private moment in public space? What did this make you feel?

People “got” the project and generally responded really well. I also figured out ways that I could simplify and streamline the project, which is a great thing to find out before beginning to build, troubleshooting software, etc. My main takeaways were as follows:

  • need to give more attention to how I design the physical setup (more private, writing on paper)
  • like the handwriting aspect, feels personal and important to the project
  • question of why i want to read another person’s memory
  • prompts – still not right? made people think of sad and scary things
  • it’s fine to just give people back a random memory for the same prompt rather than use fancy language processing, people can make that mental leap themselves

Technical Architecture

This week I started to think about the technical architecture of my project since there are a lot of moving parts to it. I met with Allison Parrish to talk about the language “matching” that I was planning to do using gensim (a machine learning library for matching similar texts), as well as interfacing with the scanner and printer on either end.

Through talking to Allison, I realized that I was trying to take on too much technically for the scope of the next 7 weeks. She advised me to think about what was core to the project and remove elements that I didn’t need. The QD Show was really helpful in showing me how to simplify; I was planning to do fancy language processing to match the two texts based on similar language, but the show made me realize that I don’t need that. Luckily, the connections between the input and output only need to be human readable, and thankfully people are good at making mental leaps. So for now at least, I’ll be keeping it a bit simpler and giving each user a memory back from the same prompt as the one they wrote about. My revised system diagram is as follows.

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Next Steps

  • Refining flow / system diagram for my project (remove language processing), see above
  • Designing technical architecture for scanning / printing (which language will I use, etc.) — meeting with Lauren, Allison Parrish, Shiffman
  • Ordering scanners and beginning to work with the drivers
  • SMS prototype for Waverley Screen
  • Cardboard prototype of the experience (design an actual machine)
  • Creating a detailed timeline for the next 4 weeks and finalizing
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Describe a memory…
of crying in a public place.
that has something to do with shoes.
of your neighborhood growing up.
of getting lost somewhere.
that took place in the subway.
that took place on a subway platform.
of being kept awake at night.
about the bedroom of a past lover.
of staying up all night.
about an imaginary friend.
about a lie you told.
of your cousin.
of making eye contact with a stranger.
involving ice cream.
of doing something you were’t supposed to do.
about seeing something on the news.
about a bee sting.
of a poster that was in your room at some point in your life.
of a scar.
of the last time you lost something.
involving a swimming pool.
of a family vacation.
of falling.
of your favorite book as a kid.
of a depressing song.
about somewhere in NYC that is significant to you.
involving a mirror.
of a historical reenactment.
of karaoke.
that took place on a bridge.
that took place on a grassy hill.
that took place on the roof of a building.
involving a pumpkin.
that took place at a famous landmark.
about the last thing you got rid of.
of doing something you weren’t supposed to do.
of doing something you weren’t supposed to as a kid.
of getting dumped.
of your favorite outfit as a child.
of where you were the last time you watched the sunset.
of a zoo.
about ghosts.
of an object that is important to you.
about a famous painting.
that took place at a fast food restaurant.
of dropping something.
of changing the way you look drastically.
of climbing something.
of a sunburn.
about cereal.
of waiting for something.
that took place in a waiting room.
that took place at an airport.
of talking to a stranger.
of a fight you had.
about a cake.
about a parking lot.

 

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We had midterm presentations yesterday and my group was lucky enough to have three amazing critics: Nancy Nowacek, Taeyoon Choi (who I’d already met with about my project) and Molly Schwartz. Here is some of the feedback they gave, captured by Gabe and Tommy. I also have a ton of notes scribbled down from when they were talking but I’ll have to sift through those myself in the coming days.

In the meantime, here are the main points they gave me. I found their feedback both surprising and incredibly useful. They asked thoughtful questions and gave me a lot to think about as I plan out what to do next. Stay tuned for a post soon about my next steps: writing 100 memory prompts, software development, user testing! Possible experiments with OCR.

General Feedback

  • Don’t worry about software, think about the experience, that will answer a lot of your questions
  • 3 scales: room, body, appliance – test all 3 inside and outside with paper, tape, cardboard etc
  • test your prompts – which are critical to the experience
  • what is the tone of voice? needs testing
  • whats the motivation for user to share something super personal before they know the outcome: motivation is what the ‘box’ looks like, what other people say about it/interact with it (how people talk about it waiting on line)
  • emphasis on connections between memories – gaining significance, perhaps focus on that
  • what is the material of memory? memories are fragile – thermal printout is different from hand written note
  • prioritize the ideas, too much going on
  • whats the legibility of the language?
  • the output needs to be special – scan handwriting and OCR?
  • time scale? play it out over seconds/minutes/days
  • Tantamounter – copying machine http://www.gelitin.net/projects/tantamounter/
  • do you want it to feel like science or magic?
  • whats the nostalgia of the industrial design device?
  • experience of emotion in mother tongues
  • contrast prompts with big emotions vs small emotions
  • public installation: idea of putting it in public space, relates to emotional cartography
  • don’t use a thermal printer!
  • Nancy Nowacek
    • Figure out experience, this is the priority
    • Scale? Body scale, World Scale, Appliance
    • Paper prototypes – make little objects and see what they feel like
    • Test your prompts. The language is critical Clinical tone? Motherly tone? Magical Realism?
    • What’s the motivation for me as a user?
    • Anna Devere Smith Fires in the mirror
    • How does time play a part?
    • Gelitin group
    • This is first and foremost a writing project
  • Taeyoon Choi
    • Connections between memories
    • Relationships between words and memories
    • Handwritten vs machine printed
    • Too many ideas
    • Public space.
    • Emotional cartography
  • Sam Lavigne
    • What’s the legibility?
    • Output should feel special OCR from handwritten notes
  • Molly Schwartz
    • Language. Diversity of language?
    • Fear and Sadness
    • Prompts
    • Murky memories, what is the boundary / slippage between my memory and yours
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