The Best Tech Father's (or Mother's) Day Gift


If your dad's a gadget fiend, you're likely scouring tech sites for the coolest device for a Father's Day gift, such as the Apple Watch (not recommended -- yet). Otherwise, you'll just send a card and/or give the old man a call on Sunday.

But there's something techy you can get your dad on Father's Day (or your mom or, if you're lucky, your grandparents) that will mean as much to you as to them: digital memories.

There are two ways to create this gift: through old photos and via video.

Somewhere in your folks' or grandfolk's home is a box filled with old photos and photo albums. I'll guarantee many of these old snaps are in really poor shape. Here's where your modern digital expertise comes in.

Check out the photo at the top of this post. It's a picture of my mother's parents sometime during the 1910s, best we can figure. It was folded in half in a box, along with dozens of other photos, some of my mom's family in the 1880s and 1890s taken in Russia, all in equally or worse shape.

On the left is the mangled original. On the right is a version after I scanned and repaired it in Photoshop.

While time-consuming, the effort of scanning and fixing a couple of hundred of these photos was enormously rewarding for me, and got me asking about who all these mysterious people were. Gradually I discovered where I really came from.

Finally, I bought two digital photo frames and loaded one with the fixed photos of my mom's family and one with fixed photos from my dad's family. I presented the pair of photo frames to my folks for one of their wedding anniversaries. To say my parents were thrilled to not only see these photos as if they were taken yesterday, but now able to see them without fishing through shoe boxes or dragging out massive photo albums is an understatement. And I got to spend some quality time with my ancestors.

If you're a Mac user, you likely know how to scan photos, but here's Apple's OS X guide to photo scanning, just in case. If you're a Windows user, here are instructions for Windows 7, and instructions for Windows 8. While there is a plethora of photo editing software choices, Adobe Photoshop Elements 13 ($80) is probably the best choice, but here's an overview from my buddies at Tom's Guide of the top photo editing software choices.

Your Yesterday Show Interview

Your scanned photos could be part of a more ambitious family documentary. A bigger part would be one or several video interviews with your folks or grandfolks.

I did this myself around 20 years ago, back when videotaping actually consisted of "taping," and am glad I did since my dad passed a couple of years ago. But I sat them down individually to get each to relate their pre-marriage lives, then together to talk about how they met and their lives until we kids came along to ruin everything.

I had a great time, and so did they. It's hard for us to realize our folks had entire lives before we came along, and that their youthful experiences were quite similar to our own (albeit with less technology). I wish I had done this with my grandparents while they were around; they were born in the horse-and-buggy era and lived to see man walk on the moon. Their stories and reactions to the dramatically changing world around them would have been fascinating. If your grandparents are still around, don't miss this opportunity.

Video interviewing your parents or grandparents is actually less time consuming and less technically daunting than photo scanning and repairing. You don't even have to edit it (unless you're feeling particularly industrious and brave). The raw interview will stand nicely by itself since the only people watching it will already interested in the topic - no need to be super cinematic.

All you need to interview your parents is a camcorder with a microphone input, such as one of the new Canon Vixia models, the HF-R60 ($300), the HF-R60 ($400) or the HF-R62 ($450) - and you want to use a separate microphone such as the Azden EX503 (less than $30) lapel, or lavalier, mic. Without a mic, your parents' voices will sound hollow, echo-y and far away, and the camcorder mic will pick even the subtlest ambient noise. And even if you speak slowly and carefully enunciate - and older folks aren't quite known for their elocution, even more so if they still have an accent from the old country - you might have trouble understanding what they say. To capture both mic'd parents and even yourself asking the questions, you'll want a small sound mixer such as the Azden CAM-3 (less than $60). A tabletop tripod would also be handy.

Now just sit behind the camera and ask them questions about their lives. They won't need much prodding.

Parental Interview Tips

Here's a simple guide to interviewing your parents.

• Do some pre-research if you can -- ask aunts, uncles or folks who knew your folks when they were kids for stories that you can then ask your parents to relate.

• Have old pictures and any other physical artifacts from their past around -- it'll help spur memories; keep the photos in chronological sequence for easy reference. Have them write down the names of everyone in each photo, and how each person is related, so they don't fumble on the names on camera. (Don't write directly on the back of these old photos -- the etching of your writing or the ink itself could bleed through and ruin the photo. Write the info on a Post-it Note or on a piece of paper you tape onto the back of the photo.)

• Write-out the questions you're going to ask, and use a tablet. Your want to avoid paper if you can -- the last thing you want to hear in the background of the video is you rustling papers.

• Do your interviews before lunch - your folks will be more energetic earlier in the day. Use a sunlit room, and seat them opposite the main window so the sun is behind you. Avoid rooms with overhead fluorescents, which give off a bright, harsh, unflattering light for video.

• Sit right next to the camera. Ask your folks to just look at and talk to you -- and strap a piece of tape across the recording light so it doesn't daunt and distract them.

• Just have one interviewer. Having the whole family peanut gallery throw questions at them from behind the camera will just confuse them and throw off their narrative.

• Do each parent individually first to tell their pre-marriage life story. Having the other spouse just sitting there not contributing will seem awkward.

• Ask specific detail-oriented follow-up questions: the kind of houses or apartments they lived in, what their neighbors were like, about commuting to school, what classes and teachers were like, where they shopped, their first jobs, their relationship with their parents and siblings, who they dated and what they did on dates, what was the first car they owned -- anything to add color, because this detail will be the most interesting bits. And if you sound interested, they will be, too.

• Avoid having food around during the interview -- it's distracting and you'll end up with someone talking while munching. A beverage is fine -- off camera -- but allow them to drink between, not during, answers. Take a break every 15-20 minutes or so to keep their energy levels up.

Most of all, try to have fun. After all, they're your parents. Discovering hitherto unknown aspects of their lives ought to get you excited, too. And it'll make one, happy and memorable Father's (or Mother's) Day.