Research & Development

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In May 2016 we launched the first version of BBC RemArc - the BBC Reminiscence Archive - which is designed to trigger memories and reminiscences in people with dementia. I'm Jake Berger, Product Manager in BBC Archive Development, and as we have just launched an updated, improved version of RemArc, I thought it a good moment to blog about why we built it, how the project came about, and what we have learned in the process.

Dementia effects memory, and in particular, short-term or ‘working’ memory. In the later stages of dementia, the memory can be wiped every 10 seconds, yet memories from earlier years (typically ages 14-40) often remain intact.  

Triggering intact memories and stimulating conversations about them can improve the relationship between people with dementia and their families and carers, which in turn can improve the level of care they receive and their quality of life.

A few years ago, we were approached by Dr. Norman Alm from the Computing department of the University Of Dundee.  Dr. Alm’s team had spent years researching how technology could be used to support people with dementia.  As Dr Alm explained the concept of reminiscence work and its benefits, we realised that the BBC’s archives could be put to good use in this area, if delivered through an appropriate medium. We agreed to work with Dr. Alm to design and build an online reminiscence archive, using material from the our archives.

My team in BBC Archive Development wanted to achieve a number of things with RemArc. Firstly, and most importantly, to use archive material to benefit those of our audience members who have dementia, their families and their carers. We are confident that amongst the 1500 items from our archives that are available on RemArc, there will be something that triggers a reminiscence for everyone.

BBC Radio logos from the 1970s/80s

Secondly, we wanted to demonstrate that it is not only the famous shows and well known historical events captured in the BBC’s archives that are of interest and are of value – a very bland-looking film clip, or the most obscure or minor detail captured in a photograph from the 1940’s, can mean something significant to someone out there.  Dr Alm and his colleagues’ work had demonstrated that generic material, rather than personal material, tended to elicit the strongest reminiscences.

Thirdly, we wanted to make sure that our work can be of benefit to the greatest number of people. To that end, we are making the RemArc software available for free under an open source license, so that people can build their own reminiscence archives, either in the UK or reversion RemArc with new languages for use abroad. We are also making the archive material featured in RemArc available for personal and educational use, via the Research And Education Space platform, or via direct download of individual items from the website, under the terms of the RemArc License.

John Lennon
User Research
Following the launch, we wanted to see how RemArc worked in practice, so, supported by the Alzheimer’s Society, I visited a number of groups of people with dementia. Over the summer of 2016, I spent time with 53 people with dementia, letting them try out RemArc, listening to their ideas, observing their responses, and noting down their ideas and suggestions.

This was a hugely valuable and informative process:  it is impossible to know how any product or service is actually going to be received by its intended users, whether it does what you hoped it would, and whether people respond to it and interact with it as you had expected.  

What did we learn from our test users?
Firstly, we learned that using archive material to trigger memories and reminiscences really does work.  During the sessions many memories were triggered, sparking great reminiscences and conversations, and seemingly enhancing the relationships between people with dementia, others in the groups and their carers.  It was also notable that a large number of people said that they remembered more about their past than they thought they would.

Secondly, we learned that the online, tablet based approach and the interaction design we used seems to work well for people with dementia.  However, several improvements were suggested, which are outlined in more detail later in this blog.

Thirdly, we learned that reminiscence can be very enjoyable, engaging and, quite simply, fun. During most of the testing sessions, which were supposed to last around 20 minutes, I had to ask the groups to return the tablets after an hour, as they were so engaged with RemArc, and having so many great reminiscences!

To illustrate, here are some quotes from the sessions:

‘It takes you back to what you used to do’

‘Makes you realise how much you thought you’d forgotten’

‘We remembered so much about the past yet we are here because we have failing memories’

‘I could sit here all day’

‘It's amazing that this resource is there, forever’

The content
With regards to the selection of content available on RemArc, overall there was no single decade or theme that stood out as most popular, though all of the decade options were chosen and used across the test groups.  The most frequently chosen decades tended to be 1940s, 1950s and 1960s; and the most frequently selected themes were People, Events, Music, Sport and TV & Radio.  A number of people suggested that there should be a Songs category.

BBC reporter interviewing a man in front of a World War Two bomb site near St. Paul's Cathederal
Interface and interaction design
In addition to the user research, our interface and interaction design was assessed by Professor Arlene Astell from The Centre for Assistive Technology and Connected Healthcare at the University Of Sheffield.  Professor Astell’s team made valuable suggestions as to how to optimise the design and interaction to make it as simple to use as possible for people with dementia.

What has changed in the new version of RemArc?
As a direct result of the user research, we have made a number of changes.  

  • Nearly every user during the testing said they would like to find out more information about images, video and audio clips we featured, so we have added an ‘Info’ button in the new version of RemArc  which when pressed, overlays some information about each item.
  • We have increased the font sizes and button sizes across the web app, and we have increased the contrast between background and foreground text and buttons.
  • Many users didn’t know that the ‘Home’ button took you back to the RemArc front page, so we have changed this button to say ’Start Again’.
  • In the original RemArc, each session loaded a random selection of 25 content items per Theme or Decade.  This meant that if the user had looked at the full set of 25 items in a Theme or Decade, they had to refresh their browser to see a new set of content.  In practice, users didn’t know that there were more than 25 items, or that they could refresh the browser, so they missed out on seeing the full set of content available. In the new version of RemArc, we have added a button to load more items after the initial 25 items have been viewed.

Screenshot of the RemArc app, allowing you to pick a decade to view.

Sharing our code, content and data
It was always our intention to open source the RemArc code so that other people can create their own versions of the app for free. You can find the code here, licensed under the Apache 2.0 Software license.  

We have also made the RemArc media available for reuse.  You can access this media and metadata via the BBC RES API or download the media and metadata in bulk.  The media is licensed for non commercial use (i.e. personal, educational or research use) under the RemArc License and the metadata is licensed under the OGL2 License.

To the best of my knowledge, this is the first time that the BBC has open sourced a complete user-facing product, the first time that the BBC has published archive metadata as linked open data, and the first time the BBC has made archive material available to download for non-commercial re-use under such a permissive license.

What Next?
With the updated version of RemArc we are confident that the interface design and interaction model is fit-for-purpose, so we do not expect to be making any further changes to its ‘look and feel’ in the near future.  We hope to run some additional trials in conjunction with other dementia-related organisations, and we are waiting feedback from a current trial in a dementia ward in a hospital in Scotland.   We hope that the content we have made available gets reused, and that people find other uses for the RemArc software that we have open-sourced.

A screenshot from the BBC RemArc app whilst in use, showing an archive clip of a programme.

To try the new version of RemArc, simply select a Theme (such as Sport, Events etc.) or a Decade (1930s, 1940s etc.) and choose whether you wish to have Image, Audio or Video content. The results are randomised each visit, however items can be 'favourited' to return to later.

You can try RemArc - and there is also a version without the page header and footer.

If you want to find out more, please contact

RemArc was launched on BBC Taster – the home of new ideas from the BBC.

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