Slow Time

Alan Dix, Lancaster University

Work part funded by LeonardoNet arts/research project

This is partly a proposal for potential installations that explore our own perceptions of time, partly a set of lenses that can be applied to other pieces either post hoc or as an intimate part of their design. Issues of time have long been a part of research in human computer interaction and also permeate other aspects of life from timelines of sport to artistic retrospectives.

In a Newtonian/Cartesian framework time is the matrix in which we live and act, in an Einsteinian/relativistic framework time is our own threads tying the fabric of reality through our constant crossings and re-crossings at our shared moments of here and now.

Slow time

We live in a world of CD sampling at kilohertz (KHz), radio waves at megahertz (MHz) and PCs running at gigahertz (GHz). In the blink of an eye the computer clock counts to a billion and 97.6 million waves of Radio 1 pass through my body; don't they tickle so?

Counter to this world of speed and imperceptibly fast motion, this proposal is to investigate slow time including the imperceptibly slow.

We move our hands and eyes and walk in timescales of seconds indeed foot bridge designers try to avoid resonance at 1Hz, the average walking pace ... unfortunately the Millennium Thames Bridge designer forgot that the side to side rocking as we walk happens every other pace 1/2 Hz.

When we sit down to do something or eat a meal, we may be stationary for 20 minutes, or an hour - a few thousand seconds - a millihertz phenomena. And the life of man is three score years and ten, a mere two and a third billion seconds; like most buildings our time on earth is a nanohertz phenomena. Pushing back beyond our lifetimes, the oldest buildings stretch a mere few hundred times longer and human kind itself back 60 thousand years - taking us into the picohertz, whilst dinosaurs and younger rock strata ripple in the femtohertz. Finally the earth itself and the very universe pass in a few billions of years - a blip upon the cosmic silence in the attohertz band.

Record and replay

Technology often allows us to explore the timescales that are faster or slower than our normal perception. High speed film that freezes a humming bird wing, or takes us frame by frame through a martial arts fight sequence.

In the particle accelerator at CERN the phenomena are unbelievably brief and there are millions of events per second. At the lowest level electronics records the passing of particles through onion-like skins around the point of contact in a structure the size of a three bedroom house. In the time the particles have traversed to the outer skin more events have happened so that the traces of multiple events are occurring stretched over time in different places: like ripples radiating over the surface of a pond, only some particles travel faster than others, so even at a particular place many events, many times are superimposed. The circuitry re-integrates the dis-integrated tracks and assess their significance. Only the most unusual are passed on, as units to further layers that successively filter and refine. This is not unlike our own brains ways of reducing the vast volume of sensory data to a few significant events for action and learning.

The power spectra of everyday life

Web cams and microphones in homes, offices and public places. The recordings are converted to power spectra measuring the amount of change at every time scale. Like the graphic equaliser on a HiFi we can see different places in terms of the amount of movements or sound over time.

In a public gallery we might see the hiss in the Hz range of people moving, the buzz in the millihertz range as visitors come and go and then the more rhythmic daily hum in the 10 micro-Hz range modulated by a 1.3 microhertz weekly throb and perhaps a slowly rising and falling volume at the 30 nanohertz as the years wax and wane.

I guess that like comparing the pulsating green bars of heavy rich and Mozart, public and private spaces have very different slow-time power spectra.

In a public square there will be lots of change in the Hz region as people wander around and also at the microhertz and sub-microhertz range as posters are mounted and removed, but little in the millihertz range (20 minutes) except those places where people gather (cafe's and park benches), forgotten bags or bombs and litter. In non-meeting public places millihertz is the domain of the forgotten and discarded.

In our homes we lay the table, we hang a coat on a hook, we sit in front of the television screen. The millihertz domain is perhaps more central to life. What did you do today – the things you relate are likely to be things that took 10s of minutes to hours, with the occasional singular event between.

Finding your keys

As well as seeing the power spectra we can 'band pass' the images and sounds of a place. This means to remove the things at frequencies other than those in a chosen range. This is what is done to sound to send it to the treble and base speakers of your HiFi.

Take the home. Band pass in the millihertz range. Start off by removing the things faster than millihertz - to and fro movements of people disappear and we are left with the things that change only slowly – rather like a series of long exposure night-time frames, the hurrying people become ghostly mist against the background. Now remove the things that do not change in the millihertz range, things that are the same for hours and days. Watch the resulting images, just the moments of millihertz change – the things put down and picked up, or perhaps put down and never picked up – "that's where I left my keys!"

Do this to Peter Phillips' photographs over the year, and filter at 30 millihertz (the annual) you remove the unchanging branch structure and see only the leaves and blossoms hanging in mid air.


In simple animals delays are difficult to deal with - dangers and joys are in the here and now. Skinner and Pavlovian conditioning diminishes rapidly if stimuli, rewards and punishments are separated by more than a second.

Yet many of the effects of our actions take far longer to see theor effect and as more complex creatures we use our memories, like the CERN hardware and software, to discern the significant events , to bring them together in our memories and hence make connections.

At a low level our bodies and minds understand certain delays because they embody them. It takes perhaps 70ms for the pain of a burn to go from finger to brain and longer still for that to register on our conscious processes. Our bodies are temporally distributed as, like the original Marathon runner, our actions do not stand still while the messages crawl along our long neural pathways. Deep in our brains we predict and guess what is happening now in order to plan what to do next and then later check our guesses against reality as the slow runners from our extremities eventually panting make their way through our brain stem to our cortices.

But we are only designed to cope with natural bodily delays and when responses to our actions lag more than those within our bodies things fail. In interaction design we know that mouse actions or other hand-eye coordination must have delays no more than a hundred milliseconds or so if otherwise our fluid movements breakdown and we must resort to carefully planning each minute mouse movement.

Technology by stretching what is possible, letting us reach into the computational complexity of the virtual or the physical distances of the remote, often has delays more than we can cope with - the strange conversations of the satellite television interview.

Timelines and memories

Timelines are everywhere, personal and corporate. How do they compare when taken as purely temporal phenomena? The history of the computer, the atom, the FACT centre. Discipline histories tend to have more and more things the closer to the present age; for example, the ChemSoc timeline catches the first 10 billion years of the universe in three events and until more densely pack the last few centuries get a whole line each. However, if you look at corporate histories, just like personal life memories, these often have densely packed events near the beginning as they formed and grew. Different again, when I write references for visualisation papers they are clustered around the early 90s a golden era perhaps?

Imagine a meta-portal based around time, rather like some of the glossary/dictionary meta-portals, not actually storing information itself, but pointing into other timelines. Suddenly the development of the digital computer can be set alongside the history of the car, the printing press and the wheel; the devlopment of Greek architecure compared with Dada; post-modernism laid alongside mediaeval scholasticism.

Life laundry

Take your home. Catalogue the contents one by one. How long has each been in the house?

How many items are there for less than 10 days - perhaps food, newspapers?
How many 100 days, 300 days (a short year), 1000 days, more, Tiny labels to each with different colours for different timescales. Plot the number against a time scale and see another power spectrum not of movement but of materiality.

How does your possessions lifetimes compare with mine, an old person and a young one, a different culture and different age?

Lay them out by time - the horder will find the counts stay constant over time, once in the house things never leave. Change the measurement instead of numbers of things by time take volume or weight. (see fly lady weighing things thrown out). Perhaps monetary value, do the more expensive things last longer in your home? Where is the peak in value? And real value, how much would you care if you lost an item - weighed by personal value how does the curve look now?


Many of the things and people that cross our lives, or occur in a place are lost and fade. Dig a trench, count the artefacts by time and the older ones are less than the newer. Some substances fade more than others, wood rots, base metals corrode, but bones and gold last for aeons.

Feel your memories how much of your past can you remember, some of the old things stay but others have faded.

And yet as humans the past also decays the present. Our sense of time present is measured by lack of significance, boredom and waiting seem to stretch life out interminably, yet time past is measured by significance the particular important or singular events or happenings that are memorable. As we age the exceptional and magic of our youth becomes the everyday and mundane and as we recall the recent years they seem less full, less time filled, than the earlier. The similarities and repetitions of the past decay the present, so like rust the base events of the normal fade into the soil of our memories. An archaeologist of life would find more and more artefacts the deeper she dug.

But we can sometimes fill our moments of boredom by resignifying the insignificant: seeing the intricacy of a spider's web or the smile of a passing child. Like rehearsing our memories can counter the decay of forgetfulness rehearsing our presents can counter the decay of carelessness.

Magic mirrors

If we place cameras behind screens we can create magic mirrors that can sometimes show us as we are, but also, like the witch's mirror in sleeping beauty tell us what we want to hear or perhaps sometimes what we wished it did not.

There are existing works that use this technique. One shows you with virtual artefacts that you can manipulate in the mirror world yet have no counterpart in the real.

Phillips have mirrors that can swop between being 'real' mirrors and screens and use these to both show information. cartoons etc. and also allow you to perhaps see yourself from behind or the side.

I recall as a boy fantasising about another smaller child who, angered by a family argument, throws a toy car at a mirror. However, instead of simply breaking the mirror, the toy somehow goes through the mirror so that on one side there are two cars on the floor and on the other nothing but shards of glass. It takes a moment or two for the significance to break through as the boy looks at himself in the mirror past the cracks then sees the mirror boy pick up the two cars and stare again, two boys facing one another. The mirror world has never been a true reflection but really a parallel world that started identically and therefore ran identically for all time and in all mirrors until the symmetry was broken by this one act. Thereafter slowly at first and then with increasing rapidity the two worlds diverge so that each mirror glance is a look into another unreachable world; couples cover mirrors at night and the morning sunlight shines brightly across the waters beneath a dark clouded sky.

The simplest magic mirror can introduce delays (in fact I think Jenn has told be this has been done in a performance somewhere) - simply play back the camera images a few seconds after they are recorded.

If we use more than one camera for sensing then it is possible to work out how far things are from the 'mirror'. If the delays were bigger for things further away it would be as if the light from your body were only sluggishly making its way from you to the mirror. You put your hand close to the mirror and its movements are reflected in real time, but if you move your head it takes a second or two for the mirror head to move.

If this were reversed then we could have light that takes more time to travel a shorter distance than longer ones, like local train lines and intercity expresses. As you walk past the mirror from a distance it is like any mirror, but as you get closer and closer the mirror becomes more and more sluggish.

With colleagues at Lancaster we have discussed replaying video at what amounts to constant bit rate in order to quickly skim things like security footage. Scenes with lots of movement play at real time whilst periods of little activity are automatically skimmed at high speed. Played in a mirror we could slow this so that periods of fast activity only play slowly whereas as slower movements catch up with real time. If you moved slowly it would function as any mirror, but if you move your hand quickly the mirror hand would sluggishly follow, until when you again held your hand still the mirror hand would eventually catch up and resynchronise.

The cosmic visitor

Cosmological beings composed of structured fluctuations in quantum gravity pass by our solar system. They move between galaxies at near the speed of light and we would measure their lifetimes in millions of years, but in their consciousness, if they feel the need to measure time at all, would do so using the spinning of galaxies as their timepiece.

They do not hear as we hear, but tenuous fingers stroke through our earth like touching flower petals on an evening walk. Each house, office and public square tingles briefly and, like morning birdsong, is a wild music to these creatures of the void.

What do they 'hear' - how do the frequency ranges of millihertz and microhertz sound when translated to audible ranges.

And what of stranger creatures still. T. H. White had Merlin live backwards in time so that he remembered the future but had no knowledge of the past which had not happened for him yet. What of creatures who's long time is our short time and whose short time is our long, for whom aeons are but moments and yet each second lasts a lifetime. Shall we take the spectral patterns of a concert hall and transform it so that the 400Hz frequency near middle C takes a year to play but the slow beat of people entering and leaving for nightly performances become audible?

Activity for you!

If you'd like to play a part in this, why not fill in the slow-time spreadsheet ... a survey of things in our pockets.

Alan's life time

People and resources

David England has worked on aspects of time over a long time period, working on the TAU project at Glasgow and subsequently creating his own projects in the area at Liverpool JM.

Peter Phillips has a collection of photographs taken from his window every other day for a year and a separate time-lapse series taken every 2 seconds over a period of 10 days.

Alan has also been interested in time and interfaces for many years (see his time pages) and has complete email records going back over 10 years that are available (anonymised!) for temporal and other visualisation.

Other things in LeonardoNet

Music and sound are traditionally measured in frequency - can we 'visualise' slow phenomena through sound - hear the sounds of library books over a year, or a home webcam as a melody.

???'s architectural work including the moss at UCL was heavily interlaced with ideas of decay and temporal dislocation the slow phenomena of moss growth apparently occurring overnight.

???'s shadow play would offer opportunities for other kinds of manipulations including delayed shadows, of oneself, past people etc.

Outside LeonardoNet

Tom Rodden and Steve Benford's CHI paper on the Brand framework and its implications for Ubicomp and indeed Brand's 7 S's of architectural structure is all about timescales. Beyond architecture Brand has applied this kind of temporal analysis to other areas.

Stewart Brand is also a founder of the Long Now Foundation dedicated to long term thinking and perhaps famous for the Millennium Clock, designs for a clock intended to run for 10,000 years.

Read Marko Ahtisaari's Blog about Slow Art "Observations on art that isn't in a hurry". Also Alison Scammell's FreePint feature on "The Slow Movement".

There are numerous 'order of magnitude' timelines and space scapes. For example the Royal Chemical Society ChemSoc Timeline goes back to the Big Bang and St Andrews have a Chronology of Mathematics.

Time Machine

what was happening in the past?

Go Back:

Go to:

To turn back the clock on a web site visit the Wayback Machine at the Internet Archive where you can see what any web site looked like in times past.

Also see Wikipedia Human timescales and Orders of magnitude (time)

Thou still unravish'd bride of quietness,
Thou foster-child of silence and slow time, ...

Ode on a Grecian Urn, John Keats