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Using VoiceThread or flipping through photo albums, life comes full circle

Memories.

That's what '60s adman Don Draper pitches to the folks from Kodak in an episode of the AMC cable show Mad Men. Kodak is introducing a new product, something they call "the wheel." As family slides project onto a screen, Don, the lead character on the show, begins. The metallic swish-click echoes in the background:

"Nostalgia . . . it's a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone. This device isn't a spaceship, it's a time machine. It goes backwards, forwards, it takes us to a place where we ache to go again. It's not called the Wheel. It's called the Carousel. It lets us travel the way a child travels. Round and around and back home again. To a place where we know we are loved."

He won the account.

• • •

Technology has further shaped the wheel. Now our family history spills out, not in pictures projected onto a screen, but in many forms and places: digital, high-def, online.

Family storytelling comes full circle at VoiceThread.com. It's an interactive medium that's worth checking out with family near, or an e-mail away. A "voicethread" lets people share their pictures and video on a Web page. Family and friends can add their written comments, their recorded voice, their own photos and more.

This first family voicethread made its point in a powerful moment that grew into a community of memories: a marriage license from the 1930s was posted and shared by e-mail. One click and then the family quickly got into the act, jotting down thoughts, pointing out nuanced details of the finely scripted Hebrew text, each using their own choice of voice recordings, text and animated doodling.

It's then shared again. Each time someone pushes the play button, all those thoughts and memories come back, bridging lower-tech family with high-tech kids and grandkids. It's free for three voicethreads. (For $59.95 a year, you get lots more space and features, including the ability to store these interactive family memories on DVD. Go to voicethread.com.)

VoiceThread is the creation of Boca Raton developers Ben Papell and Steve Muth, who launched it a year ago and are now getting notice through word-of-mouth and growing use by educators.

Now for the tech stuff: The thoughts and voices are placed on a single page by computer microphone, cell phone, text, audio file (MP3/WAV) and Webcam. There's no software to install. If you don't have a computer or if this gives you a headache, tell your kid or grandkid to scan some old slides or pictures, or upload an old home movie, and have them set it up. You'll be delighted with the results and the life to be found in old family photos and documents.

• • •

The blessing of a recent family funeral was in sharing remarkable memories while scrunched together on the couch with nieces, nephews, grandsons and daughters. Somewhat regrettably, VoiceThread was a month away from our radar. Nonetheless, old photo albums soon appeared.

Look, there's Grandma when she was a baby. She looks like you, doesn't she!

Now here she is, fetching in her snow skis on the slopes, her husband sharp in his Army uniform. You never told me Great-Grandma skied — wow!

Cuddling her first baby, now 60. Mom, that's you!

And her final Thanksgiving, in 2007, huddled over the Monopoly board, four generations together. We miss her.

It's a history we're sorting through yet, in well-worn trunks and dusty boxes, in homes like yours around the country. On Thursday, dig out your memories with the pumpkin pie.

Mimi Andelman can be reached at mimi@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8272.

Using VoiceThread or flipping through photo albums, life comes full circle 11/24/08 [Last modified: Thursday, November 4, 2010 10:02am]

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