Developing a way to capture daily life

SenseCam: Microsoft researchers are working on a wearable camera that snaps away all day.

March 18, 2004|By Kristi Heim | Kristi Heim,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

REDMOND, Wash. - Ever wish you could hit rewind and play back your life's experiences like scenes from a movie?

You might be able to soon. Microsoft researchers are working on technology that captures and organizes daily life with the same compulsive orderliness they apply to office documents.

It begins with the SenseCam, a device Microsoft researcher Lyndsay Williams calls "a black box recorder for the human body." SenseCam was one of dozens of new technologies on display this month at Microsoft's TechFest, an annual event to give employees a look at the company's research around the world.

Hidden inside a piece of jewelry or badge, the SenseCam records hundreds of images a day without the wearer ever pressing a button. The fish-eye lens faces forward, taking pictures of the scene in front of the person wearing it.

Fusing a digital camera with a variety of small sensors, the SenseCam's shutter is triggered by any change in motion, light or temperature. Later, Microsoft might add sensors that detect sound and heart rate.

"It's a passive device that gives me a photo diary of my entire day," said Williams, who works in Microsoft's lab in Cambridge, England.

Wearing a prototype SenseCam around her neck, Williams took a walk one day through a college campus and marketplace in Cambridge. In Redmond, she relived that walk by fast-forwarding through the images on a computer. The SenseCam captured 150 photos in less than an hour, with results that looked a bit like a home movie.

The gadget uses a motion sensor like ones found on outdoor lights, snapping pictures of anyone standing nearby. Williams said no one she encountered in Cambridge asked her about the camera around her neck, even though its red light flashed with every click.

"People are so busy, nobody noticed," she said.

Like mobile phone cameras, such technologies are changing what it means to go out in public.

"This is a new technology, and there's a question what balance people are comfortable with and what social conventions they will develop around it," said Andrew Herbert, managing director of the Cambridge lab.

"The only way we can get an answer is to develop the technology and let people experiment with it."

With image-searching technology, it's becoming possible to scan a photograph and search for the person in video stream from a surveillance camera. Combined with other technologies that store identity information and track location, almost anyone can be found practically anywhere.

"Will it get there? The answer is yes," said Rick Rashid, who heads Microsoft Research. "I don't assume some sense of privacy when I am in a public place. People see me, and now they can record it."

But if this technology endangers privacy, it also has its benefits. "The first problem it solves is where did I leave my keys," said Herbert.

He also said the SenseCam could be useful in the tourism industry for travelers to re-create their holiday experience. No products have been planned yet, but the camera itself costs as little as $100 to $200 to produce, Herbert said.

The question is what to do with all those images.

Gordon Bell, senior researcher at Microsoft's Bay Area Research Center, intends to use SenseCam in a project to record and digitize his entire life.

His project, called MyLifeBits, includes books, letters, home movies, instant messaging transcripts, radio and television. Now the information Bell stores will triple in size with 120 megabytes worth of images each day from SenseCam.

The hardest job will be figuring out how to organize and retrieve all those reams of data.

Bay Area researchers are working on a system to link global positioning system tags on photos to a map, letting people click on a location to retrieve photos they took there.

"We're adding things faster than we can think about their value and their implications," Bell said.

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