Listen with grandma

May 01, 2001

Are you sitting comfortably, children? Then I'll begin

A ROCKING chair that persuades elderly people to tell stories about their childhood will help to preserve valuable oral history, according to Jennifer Smith of MIT's media lab. She developed the interactive rocking chair because she regretted not having a way of recording all her grandmother's family tales. "When she died we lost all her stories with her," Smith says.

In Smith's system, the elderly person sits on a rocking chair in front of a large screen displaying a life-size, graphic image of a little girl. She tells a story of her own and then asks the person in the rocking chair questions about their life.

In tests, Smith noticed that people's rocking patterns tended to change when they finished a story: "Some people come to a stop, while others speed up," she says. So an accelerometer on the back of the rocking chair monitors movement, feeding information back to a computer that controls what the little girl says and when she says it. "I felt she could tell when I didn't want to talk and it was time to ask another question," says Laurie Eberhardt, a grandmother from South Hadley, Massachusetts, who tested the system.

Pressure sensors in the seat of the rocking chair also monitor body movements so that the little girl can be made to lean forwards or backwards, mirroring the body language of the storyteller. The computer also uses a voice recognition system to decipher the storytelling and the child reacts happily, sadly or in a surprised way to the use of any of 50 keywords.

Smith's is the first conversational system to combine word recognition with an algorithm that also recognises intonation: so the little girl nods, or makes an appropriate sound, such as "uh-huh" or "hmmm", at the right time. "Before I did that, people would stop talking and say, 'I don't think it's listening,'" says Smith.

She has found that people tell longer and more detailed stories while sitting in the interactive rocking chair than they do when talking to a tape recorder with a list of questions in front of them. "It's a more sympathetic listener," says Justine Cassell at MIT's media lab, who is developing the system for use with children. As for preserving family stories: "It's not the same as having your grandchild on your lap," says Eberhardt, "but at least she didn't get distracted and run away."
Author: Eugenie Samuel, Boston

New Scientist issue: 5th May 2001


New Scientist

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