Cornish Tales was developed to explore how Smart Speaker Devices and AI technology could be used to make audio archives more accessible to the general public. It was led by Cornwall Museums Partnership, in conjunction with tech agency Hi9; University of Plymouth-led eHealth group EPIC (eHealth Productivity and Innovation in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly) and Digital Arts Commissioning Agency, The Space.
Developed in 2020, the project was born in reaction to the COVID-19 lockdown, museum closures, and cultural isolation felt in many communities throughout the world.
Oral histories and music from St Ives Archive, PK Porthcurno, Kresen Kernow, and the Cornish Music Archive were curated into a new immersive and interactive narrative where users can visit ‘Memory Lane Tavern’ to hear songs, head to the bus stop for a journey through time to Porthcurno, St Ives, or Redruth, or jump to specific audio clips that they would like to hear. Over 500 variations of the experience became available, meaning users could have a different experience every time or revisit their favourite parts.
The host platform for the experience was Amazon Smart Speakers, with users accessing the project via the AI Voice-Assistant ‘Alexa’. Cornish Tales is an Alexa Skill – Skills are voice driven applications, games or ‘experiences’ for Amazon Smart Speaker Devices.
Music and sounds are a key tool in reminiscence therapy for people living with memory loss. With that in mind, it was planned to give local Care Homes the chance to try out Cornish Tales with their residents. Many of these Care Homes had received Alexa Smart Speakers as part of a research project with EPIC, and some of the residents had lived experience of the local histories discussed in Cornish Tales – such as coming into contact with Blitz evacuees or being part of a mining community. Unfortunately, due to staff shortage crises in the Care Sector and the ongoing effects of the pandemic, the project was unable to be rolled out into Care Homes.
However, using CMP’s networks in the areas, the project was able to be tested by Memory Cafés – social gatherings for people living with memory loss – throughout the Cornwall area. The qualitative feedback from people living with memory loss and the Memory Café Session Leaders was extremely useful in understanding how the project’s aims have been met and where improvement is required.
A key area for improvement is the user experience. All participants faced some technical issues when interacting with the AI, despite many being familiar with Alexa Smart Speakers in their daily life. One Session Leader recommended, “If future projects are planned it may help to have people living with memory loss involved in the design as well as the piloting and evaluation.”
Some participants also expressed concerns around the experience being hosted solely on Amazon’s Alexa Devices (and the Alexa App). These concerns came from both an accessibility perspective and a lack of trust in Amazon as a company. However, there was a real enthusiasm and curiosity for the technology among the majority of the sample audience. In general, Smart Speaker Devices can certainly be seen as a valid, entertaining and suitable medium for hosting digitised online audio archive material.
Once the digitised audio archives were successfully accessed, the content was largely praised. Participants enjoyed the range of different stories, featuring ducks, sport and wellington boots, and hearing the traditional Cornish songs, such as Trelawny. They also made suggestions for further ideas that could build on the existing content of Cornish Tales, like The Beatles coming to Plymouth.
-Dominic Kennedy independent evaluator on the Audio Archives project