Thursday, September 27, 2007

Brainstorming History Appliances

This year I've added a studio component to my graduate course in digital history, so the students have a chance to learn some of the fundamentals of interaction design and apply them to their work in public history. In yesterday's class I gave them the task of brainstorming gadgets, appliances, devices, tools or toys that would somehow, magically "dispense history" or put their users in touch with the past in some other way. (The assignment is here). Many of the ideas that they came up with were really interesting. In no particular order, here are some of my favorites.

Heritage knitting needles. Passed down within a family, these needles take on the ability to guide their user in the re-creation of any pattern they've been used for in the past.

Tangible spray. This comes in an aerosol can. When you spray it in front of you, a grey mist appears. You can reach into the mist and feel the past for a few moments. When the mist dissolves, you're grasping thin air. You might get hooked on such an experience, and buy one spray can after another.

History hoe. Use this in your garden to grow heirloom or extinct plant species.

Yelling documents. You put your primary source into a machine like a microfiche reader. A stern, professorial face appears on the screen of the reader. As you make interpretations about the document, the reader will berate you in a British accent if you get something wrong. Hard to please, it only admits correct interpretations grudgingly, with harrumphing noises.

Reverse Babel Fish. Put on this hearing aid, and everyone around you starts speaking in Old English.

Not surprisingly, many of the ideas reworked themes familiar from fantasy or science fiction, like the talking genealogy hat a la Harry Potter (tilt the floppy brim to fast forward or reverse) or a "transporta-potty" that is like Dr. Who's phone booth (flush to reset). Some of them related to subjects of perennial interest to students, like the cabinet that dispensed historical cocktails with music appropriate to the period.

For me, part of the fun was asking the students beforehand about their interests, hobbies and skills. I'm not sure what role we will find for talents that include piano playing, gardening, belly dancing, horse riding, knitting and snowboarding... but I'm glad to know their imaginations are in good working order. There are links to all of their blogs on the course website.

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