After more than 200 years, Paul Revere remains silent.
But it’s not his fault.
The famed patriot buried a time capsule in 1795 to preserve something of his time so future Americans could better understand their own history.
Revere, however, was a prisoner of the technology of his time. While the newspapers and coins he entombed for centuries to be uncovered last year are no doubt of great interest to the curators of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, they shed little light on who the man was as an individual, his personality, or his private views of the events that made him famous.
Maybe our fate will be different. Future generations that will look back on us today as ancient history will inherit a far richer account of life at the turn of the millennium.
They will be able to hear us speak.
They will be able to see us move through three dimensions.
And they will be able to ask us questions.
Video Conferencing Time Capsules
Of course, our time capsules won’t be locked in metal boxes and encased in concrete. They’ll be stored on servers the world over through the ever more complex network of the internet.
And we won’t be restricted to leaving behind old newspapers and coins, or even the far more detailed audio recordings that were shot into space almost two centuries after Revere left his message.
Instead, we’ll be able to leave 3D video messages that will allow generations we can’t yet conceive of to hear us tell our own tales of life in the early 21st century.
It’s already happening.
USC’s Visual History Archive is currently seeking contributions to aid its New Dimensions in Testimony project, which aims to capture the words, thoughts, and insights of Holocaust survivors.
The survivors are already being interviewed on the set of USC’s impressive Light Stage, which captures every hair and wrinkle across every possible angle of the speaker through the combination of 21 high-speed video cameras and hundreds of lights.
These images are then stitched together and projected into 3D to present the speaker in the most human presence possible. A voice recognition program then gives the oral history interviews their secret ingredient–the hologram can answer questions.
Voices That Will Be Heard Forever
The voice-recognition software simply matches key terms that could be posed in a question with the appropriate canned response. It obviously has its limitations, both in the amount of material that can be recalled and the accuracy with which it recalls it–the speaker will answer that they don’t understand your question when the system draws a blank–but in a classroom or museum setting it lets students conduct a video conference with someone who may no longer be with us, someone whose invaluable oral history may otherwise have been lost.
And there’s plenty of reason to believe voice-recognition programs of the near future will be far more intelligent in their answers. Oxford University is currently working on a system that mimics the way the human brain works, and connects sounds to symbols and combinations of patterns that make it easier for the machine to understand the intention in a question.
Using that kind of intuitive machine learning would mean people could engage in lifelike video conference calls with oral history subjects that draw on dozens of hours of testimony, and convey a far more dynamic story.
Which opens up new ways of capturing and engaging our oral history, both in the public and private settings.
Video Conferencing Time Machines
Oral histories are important because they give voice to the everyday people who lived through an event and a time. These are people who don’t hold office, or conduct TV interviews, people with perspectives that would otherwise be lost to the history books.
Historians and journalists are using video conferencing today to record the personal histories of people like this all around the world. With access to an interactive technology like the USC example, those histories could be preserved online and engaged with by generations to come, or turned into 3D holograms or placed in a virtual reality to be experienced through something like Oculus.
Video conferencing could also be used to create living family trees that give each generation a chance to talk with their ancestors. Simply hit record next time you have a video chat with granny–and if you’re using a free service like Skype there are lots of easy-to-use third-party apps that’ll let you record your video calls–and take a little time to ask her some question future generations may want answered. Then turn the camera on yourself, and your kids, and repeat.
With a little help from the new voice-recognition apps that are bound to soon arrive, you’ve created an interactive family tree across three generations that can be tucked away in cloud storage, just waiting to be experienced and embellished on for years and years and years to come.
So, what would you say to the people of the future?