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Last Updated: Wednesday, 30 April, 2003, 07:52 GMT 08:52 UK
Seashell offers digital memories
Toy car on scanner
Place your chosen object on a scanner ...

There was a time when holding a seashell to your ear conjured up the gentle sounds of the ocean but in the future it could be more likely to read you your e-mail.

People are storing more and more digital information, from precious photographs to music and video clips, as computers, internet connections and associated gadgets get faster and more sophisticated.

Now BT's research arm BTexact has come up with an eye-pleasing way of accessing digital memorabilia using physical mementos such as a champagne cork from a party, a child's favourite toy or a seashell from a holiday.

The system uses these objects as triggers to bring up digital photos or music stored on a computer.

Linking diverse worlds

Initially researchers place an object such as a seashell on a scanner that makes a record of what it looks like.

BT prototype in action
... and then view your favourite photos

The shape of the object is then linked by the system to all forms of digital media.

When it is then put back on the scanner, the computer recognises the shape and plays back e-mails, text messages and websites, as well as audio, photographs and video, via a TV or similar display screen.

"People are storing stuff on their hard drives and it is rarely seen again," said Andy Gower, lead designer at BTexact's multi-media labs.

It is hoped that by offering novel ways to access digital media, the fear of the PC experienced by many people can be overcome.

"Lots of people don't want PCs in their normal living areas but mementoes are always on display," he added.

There is an increasing desire among developers to break down barriers between technology and the physical world of objects.

Several research groups, including BTexact, are creating digital flowers, which allow people to monitor their digital communications via an artificial plant.

Hiroshi Ishii is leading the Tangible Media group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology which looks at creating interfaces between humans, digital information and the physical environment.

BTexact is already in talks with companies to bring its innovative digital storage method to consumers.

It is envisaged such systems could be in shops within 18 months.

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