UCL Innovation and Enterprise


Tales of Things

1 November 2011

Tale of Things

‘If these walls could talk...’ So goes the saying. Well, now they can, thanks to a joint innovation from UCL, Edinburgh College of Art, Brunel University, the University of Dundee and the University of Salford. Tales of Things electronic Memory (TOTeM) is a web-based platform that gives objects – anything from walls to shoes – a voice. It allows users to imbue a thing with the memories they link to it.

Tagging technology

The technology lets people tag anything with a memory, and for anyone in the future to retrieve that memory. It makes use of both QR (Quick Response) and RFID codes – tags that carry digital data such as a URL.

The website, www.talesofthings.com lets you upload a photo video and a story about any object and print off a unique QR tag to label it with. Future owners or passers-by can scan the tag using any QR scanning technology. This takes them to the website, where they can read the story and add to it.

Dr Hudson-Smith said, “QR codes have been around for about 15 years. But they’re usually read-only. Our website makes them writable too – you can add to the data they hold.”

A meeting of ideas

Inspiration for Tales of Things came from a ‘Sandpit’. Not a child’s play space, but a novel way for research councils to assign funding to projects. Hopeful grant recipients met for a week of intensive brainstorming, and pitched their ideas to the EPSRC (Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council). Attendees were asked to bring along one item they believed could change the world.

Dr Andrew Hudson-Smith, Director of UCL’s Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis, said, “Tales of Things was born from a meeting between the mobile technology of an iPhone and the heritage of a Thai memory bowl, which chimes to signify the memories of its owner.”

Real-world applications

Wired magazine listed the technology, which it called ‘chatitecture’, as one of top 25 big ideas of 2011. TOTeM lets buildings talk. Once a building has been labelled, all you have to do is point your camera phone at a tag to access and add to multimedia content about a building.

“There are so many other applications,” said Dr Hudson-Smith. “We’ve already partnered with Oxfam, to give their second hand goods a voice – the week we trialled it, the shop achieved 45% more sales. People love to hear the story of what they’re buying.”

They’re also using the technology to encourage interaction with museum artefacts, and hope to use it in partnership with publishers so that readers can leave audio commentary on academic text books.

Working together

The fact that so many research teams are involved may seem daunting to some – but for Dr Andrew Hudson-Smith, it’s been a boost. “It’s been really refreshing having the other researchers to bounce ideas off. We each contribute what we’re good at. UCL is doing the technology, and Dundee made a fantastic wand casing to read the codes in Oxfam.”

“The site has been live for about a year now,” said Dr Hudson-Smith, “and the write-ups have been great. It’s exciting to see where it’s going to go next.”

Find out more

If you want to try Tales of Things for yourself, visit www.talesofthings.com and try uploading your favourite stuff. And look out for tags around London. Some buildings have a great story to tell.