Illegible headstones? There’s an app for that


Popular consensus seems to be that cell phones are far too prevalent in daily life. Tweeting, texting, music, surfing, games – the list is endless. Some might even say phones have become more toy than tool.

Aside from basic functions and some photo capabilities, it’s certainly not much help in old graveyards, right? Well, if John Bottorff has anything to do about it, cell phones might become a genealogist’s best friend.

Bottorff, the owner of Objecs, LLC, has developed three, cell-phone readable tablets suitable for both the new and old, illegible gravestones. Called the Personal Rosetta Stone, these tablets store selected personal data via RFID technology and are mounted on the gravestone. By touching the stone with an NFC-RFID enabled cell phone, genealogical information is then uploaded to the viewer screen.

What is RFID technology?

According to

“RFID (or Radio-Frequency Identification) refers to a small electronic device consisting of a micro chip (carrying up to 2,000 bytes of data) and an antenna.

The RFID device serves the same purpose as a bar code or a magnetic strip on the back of a credit card or ATM card; it provides a unique identifier for that object. And, just as a bar code or magnetic strip must be scanned to get the information, the RFID device must be scanned to retrieve the identifying information.”

Earlier this week, I caught up with John to find out more.

RFID in tombstones? How did this get started?

Well, like many new business ideas, it branched off from something else. A Portuguese client thought our object hyperlink products might be useful for identifying the crumbling, 600-year old tombstones on his property. Ultimately, he wanted to share this information via cell phone. This was easy enough to do since European mobile devices are automatically configured to access information via hardlinks.

However, it’s a different story here in the U.S.

Why? Are American cell phones different?

American cell phones are typically locked and providers don’t offer NFC-RFID enabling at this time. At least not yet. Eventually, the technology will be incorporated and there are some who do have it now, but these are the geeks who bought the equipment overseas and brought it home. However, our tablets do work with all Internet enabled phones, but only NFC enabled phones can use our wireless touch technology.

Keep in mind, that the information can also be pulled manually.We know a third-party vendor that developed an app for iPhone users – yes, there’s an app for that. But it’s not ours.

When do you see our phones handling this technology?

I anticipate this happening around 2010.

How does the RFID chip get into the tablet/headstone?

There’s a way to embed the electronics but it’s a trade secret on how the stone mason carves it all in. I can’t elaborate any further.

The tablets have some kind of engraved symbols. Can you explain these?

We designed the Rosetta Stone to be an artifact, meaning the customer can choose symbols that best defined a person’s life. For example, we offer the scales of justice describe a judge, a badge to signify a policeman, or a sailboat to describe someone who liked sailing. At this time, we have a library of about 800 symbols, many of them developed through customer feedback.

What’s the most unique symbol?

The jail cell symbol (Check out #70 on the symbols list).

So, the customer picks a tablet, chooses the symbols, and then what?

The tablet and chip tag are then set into the headstone. Later on, a genealogist with an enabled cell phone camera and internet connection, could take a picture of the barcode (in this case, the tablet). This action triggers a link and redirection of the phone’s web browser to the desired URL target and related database information. (Here’s a more detailed explanation)

Your website mentions three types of tablets. What are they?

The three types are Millennium, Century, and Decade.

The Millennium class is the longest wearing because it’s made out of granite and the Century class is made from travertine stone. While the Century type is specifically designed as an indoor family heirloom, it can be used outdoors. The third is the Decade, a metal, polypropelyne (thermoplastic molding) marker. These were what we originally mailed to our Portuguese client.

What unexpected surprises have you encountered?

Actually, it’s the market. We initially approached this product assuming that our customers were the 55- and older, genealogy-oriented market. We’re now finding out that the age bracket is actually lower, ranging from 40-year olds, down to even 20-somethings.

What’s been the reaction from genealogy societies?

There’s been little to no reaction from genealogy societies. This has been surprising considering the amount of data out there that could be put to wider access. Perhaps there is a lack of knowledge about the product or skepticism about whether the particularly small, local info would even be worthwhile entering in this database? I don’t know.

What message are you hoping to send with this product?

It’s important to identify your place in time, regardless of who you are or your life’s story. Future generations are going to want to learn about the past and this is one way of helping them out. Today’s barber might not think his work is important but three generations from now, another barber might disagree.

5 Responses

  1. Kristy
    Kristy February 5, 2010 at 2:26 pm | | Reply

    Okay, I’m clearly not getting it. In what way is this superior than just uploading the information to a website such as People can certainly access it more easily through the internet than by approaching and touching/activating a given stone. Right? What am I missing?

  2. G.E. Anderson
    G.E. Anderson February 5, 2010 at 4:26 pm | | Reply

    Kristy: Good to see you back and thanks for the comment.

    I see three reasons why this could be helpful:
    1. Not everyone is on Find A Grave
    2. A faster, more direct link to the database
    3. It’s a way to add a little more personal information about someone’s life and loves that goes beyond the name, date of birth and date of death.

    After all, how many times are we stymied about finding more than just the basics?

  3. John Bottorff
    John Bottorff February 6, 2010 at 12:49 am | | Reply

    Hi folks,

    John, from Objecs (RosettaStone). We are not “superior” and not a competitor, but we can certainly compliment such organizations as FindaGrave. I will explain the how of this in a moment, but first there are three ways that RosettaStone is different.

    1) Physical Product. RosettaStone is a hold-in-your hand electronic product that you receive in the mail (the stone tablet or one of the small stick on tags).
    2) There is no “find” in our product as in FindaGrave, the visitor is on site. The RosettaStone products are designed for point-of-need, as in someone in the distant future has stumbled across or standing in front of the marker/ gravestone in need of information, it is location specific. This is the essence of what it means to have a technology enhanced memorial.
    3) Primary Key (as in database primary key affixed to a gravestone). I could go on for hours on how important this is and what the future will look like, but let me just say that it is what makes each graver marker unique and when uniqueness is in place it opens the door for technology and a more holistic (text, images, multimedia, gps, genealogy) exchange of information between the gravestone and visitor, but it is much more than this. A physical primary key is critical to the long-term survivability of archived records.

    Each memorial product we sell has this unique primary key. Once that is on a headstone you can still use a service like FindaGrave or similar organization (if they haven’t already freely received the data from us) only now you can ask them to allow entry of your new primary key field and treat it as such. What just happened is the truly unique identification of a gravestone that now makes sense across multiple technologies, organizations, and data stores creating potential for more robust findability, transactions, sharing, no duplications, and communicating of data in ways that can’t be efficiently be done otherwise.

    So, the complimenting part mentioned above comes about because we share our archived records with many such organizations. We share like the house is on fire to any database that will listen (with a bit of business vetting, of course) using distributed version control. We do this for long-term record survivability – 3,200 years of targeted survivability, because one entity shouldn’t be the sole archive for long-term survival.

    Sorry, I now realize that was more than any sane person wanted to hear. : -)


  4. Cletus Tavorn
    Cletus Tavorn March 3, 2010 at 8:37 am | | Reply

    Thoughtful post in an area I wouldn’t have through about without coming across your blog.

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