Bit Time Rotary Dial Phone project showcase

By Nicola King. Posted

A unique project in Essex explores how all ages engage with the tools that enable us to communicate, including using two upcycled retro phones. Nicola King dials in

The Rotary Dial Phone project is part of a wider initiative called Bit Time – a project that has been running in Basildon, Essex over recent months. It's the brainchild of Dave Norton and Laura Travail. Dave is a digital Artist and drama practitioner whose work ranges from large-scale interactive installations to live theatre performed in a virtual world. Laura is an artist and context strategist with an outdoor theatre and live-art background.

Lead artist Laura explains, “Bit Time is an intergenerational project, combining the skills and knowledge of the very young with those of our elders.

Artists Dave Norton and Laura Travail run the intergenerational Bit Time project in Basildon, Essex

"As artists and facilitators, we’ve been bringing together these ideas and possibilities into playable works that in themselves keep that momentum going. These are projects about communication technology, but they are also communication technologies in themselves. By interacting with the art, you are interacting with each other.”

Cold calling

So, the retro phones… where do they fit into this story? Phone project artist Dave Norton says, “The inspiration for the question/answer phones came from a desire to build a device that lets you share a message with someone you’ll never meet. A digital time capsule of anonymous thoughts, advice, stories, and memories that could be listened to by anyone. You have no idea who might hear your message and how it could affect them.”

He explains how the system works: “You walk past a phone and it starts ringing, you pick it up and the operator asks you to answer a question, e.g. ‘what was your first phone?’, ‘what will a phone of the future look like?’ A ‘recording’ light comes on and you leave your message and hang up. Later on, you see another phone that also rings as you walk past; you pick it up and it plays back a random message left by someone else.”

Testing a phone for use in the Rotary Dial Phone Project. Power constraints mean the phone's bell and the recording sign have to be disconnected when the Raspberry Pi that controls them boots up

A motion detector identifies when someone walks past, while a push-button detects when the receiver is lifted. The phone’s mic and speaker are hooked up to a Raspberry Pi, which chooses a random audio file question to play. “The mic starts recording the user’s message for 15 seconds, or until they hang up, then the whole process restarts. The answer phone works in a similar way, but only chooses random audio files to play back.”

The upcycled rotary phone: triggered by a motion detector, each phone starts ringing when someone walks past it. Raspberry Pi randomly selects and plays an audio file containing a question

Since the installation needed to work in any kind of location, it couldn’t rely on WiFi to transfer audio files between the phones, particularly as the audio files needed to be checked manually before they could be shared with the public. “I ended up having to code a ‘syncing’ mode, which is activated when a USB drive is inserted into Raspberry Pi, which automatically transfers all the audio files to the drive,” reveals Dave.

Maker Dave Norton says it was easy to snip the wires from each dial phone’s speaker, microphone and hang-up button and connect them to Raspberry Pi

You talkin’ to me?

The Bit Time project, including the rotary dial phones, ultimately became an exhibition which toured Basildon in summer 2019. Dave says, “There’s something really unburdening about being anonymous, and something really pleasing about being given an open platform to speak your mind. I loved the idea that the installation starts as a blank slate and, as it travels to different events and locations, it collects a mixture of stories and thoughts and shares them with anyone who cares to listen, something akin to a travelling storyteller.”

He says the phones elicited a variety of reactions. “Some people just hang up straight away, some people audibly freak out that they’re actually being recorded, some yell bizarre phrases, but most people genuinely answer the question. No two answers have been similar and it makes for some really interesting listening… We’ve ended up with hundreds of varied audio responses – it would be lovely to build some sort of audio installation using all the clips.”

The question phone plays a random question to whoever picks up the handset and records their response

Quick facts

  • The phones project took around three weeks to complete 

  • Basildon Library Creator Space provided a location to construct the Bit Time artwork

  • A 5 V solenoid is used to ring each phone’s bell

  • Dave programmed each Raspberry Pi using Python 

  • He suggests the phones could be used in the foyer of a venue after an event, to glean honest views from attendees

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