The Time Telephone

One of the aims of the Playing the Archive project is to activate the extensive Opie Archive in playful interactive installations.  This has led to the development of the Time Telephone, an installation that explores new forms of tangible and multi-sensory interfaces to communicate and preserve the fragile and ephemeral cultural memories of play. 

 

Users are invited to step into the telephone box and use an original rotary phone to call children from around the country and hear about their play adventures. The Time Telephone explores the potentiality of the kiosk to trigger contrasting experiences among visitors: older generations will find themselves plunged into a familiar activity of the past (the use of the rotary phone) that will likely trigger childhood memories;  younger generations will discover games of the past by using (or rather playing with) an unknown interface, nowadays replaced by smartphones.

 

At the centre of this installation is a replica of the red telephone kiosk K6 originally designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott customised at the Bartlett Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis (CASA) at University College London. The lightweight replica is moveable allowing it to be installed in different locations. The kiosk K6 has become an iconic symbol of the British streetscape. Historically, the kiosks were equipped with rotary phones, which are now almost completely unknown to younger generations.  In the museum space, the kiosk becomes a tangible and multisensory interface that allows the visitors to access a selection of the archival material created by the Opies (currently stored at the British Library in “The Opie Collection of Children’s Games and Songs“) and a series of recent recordings made by the Playing the Archive research group with children at schools in London, Sheffield, Cardiff and Aberdeen.

 

Inside the kiosk is an original GPO 746 rotary phone fitted with a RaspberryPi B+ (a small single-board computer).  The program installed on the RaspberryPi creates a list of the audio recordings stored on an SD card and decodes the pulses from the rotary dial.  When the visitor picks up the phone a dial tone is played (historical sample recordings of the dial tone are used to provide continuity in the experience).  The visitor can then pick a number to dial from the telephone directory inside the phone booth.

 

If the user dials a number that matches one of the audio recordings stored in the phone, a child’s voice reads out the number that has just been dialled. The corresponding audio file is then played from the handset and from a loudspeaker on the ceiling of the phone booth, which allows more that one person to interact with the installation at a time (for example a child and parent). The sound stops playing when the user hangs up or if the user dials a new number. If the user dials a number that does not match any of the audio recordings, a recorded voice asks them to hang up and try again.

 

One Time Telephone was installed at the Site Gallery in Sheffield for the Children’s Media Conference and Sense of Play event at the end of June.  The other is in place in the entrance hall of the V&A Museum of Childhood where it has been since the 15th of April.  It has proved a very popular installation with an average of about 60 calls being made per day.  This, of course, does not include the equally important (but less easily quantifiable) calls being made by our younger visitors to imaginary friends and family!

 

The Time Telephone will be open for calls during the Festival of Play at the V&A Museum of Childhood this weekend.

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