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Digital Stories Preserve and Share Memories

Philip Moeller

Using smartphones, iPads, and other digital devices to help us create and preserve our life stories, voices, and legacies for children and grandchildren will one day be commonplace. Along with the hugely popular rise of online genealogy services, we will be able to capture individual and family histories, share them with others, and link them to an increasingly rich digital structure of historical information. In digital terms, living history is a killer app.

A bunch of fledgling efforts to develop such personalized histories already exists, but we're just taking baby steps for the most part. Older people have been slow to embrace much more than the basic capabilities of these powerful digital tools. But as the hardware becomes more common and software tools become easier to use, expect storytelling to grow

Mike Davis may or may not be among the entrepreneurs who succeed in this space. His startup is called StoryPress and is based in Austin, Texas. Davis is the firm's only full-time employee and, using seed money from family and friends, he has worked with a small team of contractors to develop a storytelling app for the iPad that just launched and costs $9.99. I am not endorsing the app but, rather, using Davis' story to help explain how the technology might be used by seniors and their families.

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Davis, trained as a mechanical engineer, was drawn into storytelling after his grandmother got an iPad and asked him how she could use the device to record her life stories to leave behind to other family members. "There are lots of [tablet] recording apps out there," he recalls, '"but most of them are just a big on-off button connected to the tablet's audio software. He could not find an application with an intuitive and easy-to-use user interface to guide her.

"Even if she was able to make her recordings, how does she get the audio file off of the iPad and out to the people who want to hear it?" he asks. Davis got fixated by the idea, did more research, and, earlier this year, quit his job doing research and development for new medical devices.

Subscribers to StoryPress are greeted with a sequence of questions to help them create a story. The app uses a book metaphor for each story, allowing the user to enter the author's name (most likely their own name), date of birth, and story title. Users also can use a photo from their iPad photo libraries for cover art on their story.

I checked out other storytelling iPad apps, including SonicPics and Storyrobe. They have some ease-of-use similarities with StoryPress but are heavily keyed to using pictures as the focus or triggering event for building a story, either with or without a lot of audio elements.

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StoryPress is more concerned with using a person's own voice to tell his or her story. Much of Davis' attention has gone to helping people organize their thoughts and figure out what to say. He thinks looking at a blank screen while the tablet's recorder is on is intimidating to people, and that they want help in creating their stories. "Tape recorders have been around forever but people don't know where to start," he says. So he has built interview questions that users can follow to record their story.

For now, Davis has eight sets of question categories: childhood, growing up, major events, adulthood, personal reflections, travel, wedding, and significant moments. A ninth category, full biography, includes all 180 questions from the other content packets. Within a packet, a question is displayed on the iPad screen (StoryPress is only available on iPads right now) and the user can record his or her answer to the question.

This may work but in my tests, I was still tongue-tied as new questions rolled into view. StoryPress is cumbersome to work with. I recommend scrolling through all the questions in a packet and thinking about them before actually recording any answers. This may take you a few tries but, all in all, only a few minutes to get more comfortable with the things you want to say. You may want to answer only a few questions, save them, and come back later to add to your story.

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Once a person has finished recording a story, he or she can click on a button and send the audio file to a StoryPress website where it will automatically be stored and available for other people to open and hear. An email will be sent to the user containing his or her story's unique Web address. And the story will be stored on the website forever, Davis says (or, more realistically, as long as StoryPress is around). Users, however, can download the audio file of their stories and make sure it's available to send to others.

Right now, Davis hopes enough people install the StoryPress app to fund continued development. He freely admits the app has limitations in its current form. It does not permit someone to add an existing audio file to his or her story, for example. He'd also like to add hundreds of sets of content prompts built over time to match specialized storyteller needs. Some might be devised by subject-matter experts, for example. Davis is trying to build an advisory panel of experts to work with him.

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