Talking walls and boxes on the fringes of Hebrides
Earlier this year PhD students Amy Isard and Arlene Casey secured funding from IIG for their project Talking phone boxes on the edge of the Hebrides.
They have scouted a few more students (a strong group of 8: including 7 female students), more support from the Institutes and ended up boarding a plane that took them to the little islands on the edge of Hebrides: Tiree.
Tiree Tech Wave
Tiree is popular with surfers who come to the island to tame the Atlantic waves, but twice each year it attracts technical and creative individuals who gather for Tiree Tech Wave. The gathering offers the opportunity to take a break from a fast-paced urban life and ponder on what technology means to the rural world on the outskirts of the digital civilization. The Techwave is run by Professor Alan Dix, a part time resident on the Isle of Tiree and a distinguished professor, affiliated with Birmingham University.
The 2017 autumn TechWave focused on Tiree’s 11 traditional red phone boxes, which have been gifted to Tiree Community Council. The community council were keen to turn these into points of interest and want to work with the TechWave participants to achieve this aim. Informatics students worked on two ideas on how to utilise the phone boxes.
Talking phone boxes
Their first idea was to create a social media presence and personality for a phone box. They created a Facebook page and coded it using the Facebook API and a python SDK for Facebook. The aim was to create an interactive page: if someone posts a question about Tiree or a picture of themselves on Tiree, Facebook will then automatically respond by pulling a relevant entry from the Tiree museum database.
If the walls could talk
Working with the team from product design in Cardiff Metropolitan University, they mocked up a phone box for demonstration purposes. A member of team from Informatics worked with a PhD student from Finland using Arduino technology to create a motion sensor that detected presence near the phone box and started to play Gaelic music, to lure the visitor into the phone box.
Once inside they would find a tablet displaying information and a telephone handset. Students created an interactive web application that asked the visitor what they would like to learn more about using text based similarity measures they searched the Tiree museum database to pull up relevant information. Students were also working on linking the app to a natural language generation tool, which was designed for museum collections. The tool inserts captions e.g. ‘Like the last picture you saw this picture is also from the town of Scarnish’. They also incorporated some local songs to the application for people to listen to via the handset. There are future plans to record local’s experiences in the phone boxes that would reflect the important events in their life e.g. waiting for the phone to ring to hear about a birth in the family.
Team work for all
The participants saw the trip to Tiree as an opportunity to have a break from their current projects. One of the challenges of working on a PhD is the isolation of your own work. The experience of working in a team sharing skills and learning new skills was motivating and enriching. The students also benefited from being part of a multi-disciplinary team. In five days the team achieved a significant amount, the individual components are developed but need some robust testing and linking together and the web application needs to be moved to a tablet app. Not only would they like to go back to finish the project, they want other students to have this experience in the future, and are currently searching for funding to allow that.
I was very excited about the interactive telephone box project from the very beginning, given the context that it will bring the traditional British red phone boxes on Isle of Tiree back to usage and make the cutting edge human computer interaction (HCI) technology accessible to the island community and it visitors. This TechWave allowed me to work with people across different informatics disciplines including HCI and natural language generation. Last but not least, an exposure to the island life and interaction with the local residence were unique experiences for me. I highly recommend students in our school taking part the future TechWave programmes.
Working in a group was very stimulating! We also realised that we could easily transfer the knowledge and skills we have developed during our PhD, and apply them to a different kind of project. And, of course, we learned new things every day. Finally, combined with the picturesque location of Tiree Island, this project was a gratifying and refreshing experience.