Friday, March 22, 2013

Imagine: A New Kind of Family History

   At RootsTech there is a theme running through the entire conference, capturing the stories of our ancestors. If we don’t document their lives, how will anyone ever know that they existed? We can create digital videos, record audio conversations and write down anecdotes about our living relatives. We can collect facts and stories about our deceased family. How do we take this one step further and make their lives interactive?

   Imagine if you were able to sit down at your computer, click an icon on the desktop and have what appeared to be a video chat with a family member who is no longer with us. Would it be creepy? My wife thinks it would be. Would it be possible? I think so. It could also be possible today.

   What I’m suggesting would give you the ability to have a conversation with an ancestor. Here’s what someone would need to make it work –
  • a photo of the person (more is always better) 
  • or a video (this will allow for more natural facial expressions)
  • audio recordings 
  • facts, anecdotes, stories, histories
  • an avatar builder
  • chat bot software
   Let’s start with the chat bot software.  There are some very sophisticated software programs that allow you to have a conversation with a computer and never realize that you are talking to a computer.  They are programmed so well as to seem intelligent.  The good ones learn from you the more you talk to them.  There are off the shelf chat bots that you can program with thousands of phrases.  Let’s say that our chat bot has access to every story about your ancestor and data about the time period and location that they lived.
Next, get an avatar builder.  An avatar is basically a 3D head and shoulders that we can map either the photos or the video images to.  This will give us the most lifelike representation.  Just add audio and we have the voice.  The video of me below was created in an avatar builder.  The head turns, the eyes blink and the mouth moves as it speaks, all from one uploaded photo.

   Now click that icon on your desktop.  The application uses the computer camera to recognize you and when great-grandpa comes on the screen the first thing he says is, “Hi Mike, how’ve you been?”   It would be his face and his voice and it would be indistinguishable from a live video chat.  You could ask when he was born or for him to tell you about growing up in Boston in the 1920s. 

   This wouldn’t just be parroting back stored facts.  It could be designed to look at all the facts and be able to answer new questions.  It could be as simple as a familiar face to be a sounding board.  As you converse, the image would nod its head and tell you that you are doing a good job and that they are proud.  The software could learn from every new conversation and incorporate the data into its persona.

   We’ve been asked, “what should you leave for your grandchildren?”  My first instinct would be to leave a video of me telling the stories of my life.  What if I could leave a more interactive version of myself?  What may appear creepy today may seem perfectly normal in the future.

   Would you create a digital version of yourself to leave as your legacy?  I would.


  1. This reminds me of those movies where the guy on the spaceship talks to those back home, but on a recording. Or the concept of video wills. I really like the energy with which you can conceptualize all this.

    Wasn't there a recent article in the NYTimes by . . . I want to say Bruce, wrong article. It was by J. Peder Zane on March 12th. Title: "Hey, at Least You Can Be Virtually Immortal." I'll bet your ideas are prophetic!

    1. I've been monitoring that area of technology for many years. Especially software that can win the Turing Prize (the ability to chat and fool a human). The focus at Rootstech about preserving the past prompted me to pen the details. Prophetic? No. The clues are obvious if you know which walls they are written on. Call me observant.

  2. Hi Michael,

    I want to let you know that this post is listed in today's Fab Finds post at

    Have a wonderful weekend!


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