If a device could capture every moment in life for your easy recall later, would you want it to? There are plenty of things I’d rather forget.
I always knew I was short, but it wasn’t until recently that I realized exactly how short.
That’s because I’ve been trying a couple of life-logging devices—gadgets that clip to my shirt or hang around my neck, automatically taking photos of the world around me. The results? Some neat shots of family, friends, and Silicon Valley life tucked in amongst countless photos of torsos, legs, sidewalks, and bicycle handlebars.
Life logging has long been an activity for a few diehard data fanatics and academics. Early adherents included University of Toronto professor Steve Mann, who as a graduate student at MIT in 1994 began wearing a wireless camera that could record images from his point of view and display them online (see “Wearable Technology as a Human Right”). In 1998, Microsoft researcher Gordon Bell started collecting as much digital information about his life as he could in an effort to create a searchable archive of his memories. He even wrote a book, Total Recall, arguing that cataloguing everything was a better way to live and would eventually become pervasive.
We’re not yet there, but we’ve been moving in that direction. Smartphones are widespread, with cameras and apps affording plenty of opportunities to log and share the minutiae of life, and the costs of bandwidth and storage have dropped precipitously. And now we have access to life-logging gadgets like the Autographer and the Narrative Clip: small, clip-on cameras that continually take pictures on their own. Their makers believe you want to wear a gadget that will document life for you, no effort required.
I was open to the possibility. After all, I often whip out my smartphone to capture snippets of life as it happens—firemen washing their trucks down the street from my office, flowers artfully arranged in my living room, a raccoon hanging out next to my apartment building. My aim is to share them and, occasionally, take a stroll down the digital memory lanes that are Instagram and Facebook. Perhaps a device that captures my life as it unfolds, without my having to take time out to compose images, might yield enough benefit to outweigh the annoyance of having to wear (and charge) yet another gadget. I wondered: would it make family time and bike rides more enjoyable? Would it help me remember people and events? Would I even be able to sort through the resulting deluge of photographs?
Point and shoot
I hated wearing a camera at first. I felt extremely self-conscious, especially with the bulkier Autographer around my neck. It packs a wide-angle lens and sensors—including an accelerometer, magnetometer, and thermometer—into a package about the size and heft of an anchovy can. I found myself apologizing to friends and store clerks, blaming my unusual tech gear on a professional assignment, but that just called even more attention to it.
Still, it’s good that the devices announce themselves. They look geeky, but not sneaky. People can (and will) ask why you have a weird square (Narrative Clip) or shiny black bar (Autographer) on your shirt collar, and especially in the case of the Autographer and its wide-angle lens, they’ll be able to identify it as a camera. The Narrative Clip’s lens is less obvious, but it gleams when hit by light to at least hint at what it is. If somebody has a problem with it, you can simply take it off.
And you will frequently take it off anyway. Autographer, with its sensors, GPS, and Bluetooth connection to my iPhone, sucked up battery life; I got only a few hours out of it when it was set to take photos at a “medium” frequency, which is up to 240 images per hour. The Narrative Clip was able to last more than a day, owing to the fact that it has no display and fewer sensors, and, irritatingly, plugs into a computer to sync photos.
Remembering to charge and wear the Autographer or Narrative Clip regularly felt like a chore. Though I eventually got into the habit, there was still a big problem: the content of the photos. My days often consist of hours spent gazing at a glowing monitor while my fingers tickle a keyboard. I felt embarrassed looking back at days’ worth of photos that showed the same shots of my desk, computer, and office skylight.
What saved both gadgets from being tossed in a drawer was special occasions. Envisioning the ease with which they might capture time with family and friends, I took the Narrative Clip on a spring ride with a friend through the fleetingly green hillsides of Northern California and the Autographer to a playdate with my one-year-old niece.
The most interesting—and surreal—photos of the whole experiment captured my bike ride. The first few images show my garage, with bike helmets and bikes hung neatly on hooks. Then it’s outside on the streets of San Francisco, followed by miles of mostly blurry trees, blue skies, and power lines—apparently, the camera was pointed nearly straight up.
In search of focus
These photos were fun to look back on, but are they really compelling enough to justify buying a camera for my lapel?
It didn’t seem so, but I decided to ask someone who has devoted years to life logging. With the Narrative Clip attached to my shirt collar, I visited Gordon Bell, 79, now a researcher emeritus at Microsoft Research in San Francisco.
The Narrative Clip, left, weighs 20 grams. The Autographer, which has a wide-angle lens, sensors, and display, weighs 58 grams.
As part of a project called MyLifeBits, Bell archived pretty much all facets of his life except conversations (to avoid legal issues) from 1998 to 2007. He scanned photos and books, saved e-mails and instant messages, and captured the world around him by hanging a Microsoft-developed wearable camera called the SenseCam around his neck. (The Autographer, which is produced by a subsidiary of Oxford Metrics Group, a maker of imaging sensors and software, is actually based on the SenseCam technology.) MyLifeBits ended in 2007 because two of his colleagues left to join other projects, but Bell says he continues to save about as much information as he did when it was going. He had a kidney removed in April to treat cancer, and during our talk he wore a Basis health-monitoring watch that he’s using to track his heart rate, which he says has risen since the operation (he suspects a beta blocker’s interactions with his pacemaker).
After 15 years of life logging, he says, he often finds it helpful to consult his digital evidence store for details of transactions and “professional articles,” in addition to photos of his daily whereabouts. He doesn’t see the point of relying primarily on our fickle memories. “I want the real record, the real ground truth,” he says. Just knowing he has these memories at hand makes him feel more confident than he was before he started tracking everything.
For the MyLifeBits project, researchers catalogued events for later recall by storing all those images and messages in a database; users could select several items and assign them keywords, or file an item in several places at once. Bell says the database was eventually discontinued because researchers didn’t think many people would want to use something so complex. These days, he uses the basic desktop search on his computer. He’s divided folders into “personal” and “professional” categories, with an “active” or “archival” designation within each category to make them easier to sort through. He annotates file names with metadata indicating details such as who is in a photo and what it documents.
Still, Bell acknowledges that we’re far from having good ways to organize and revisit these memories. I noticed that quickly in my life-logging experiment. The iPhone apps for the Narrative Clip and the Autographer look more like photo dumping grounds than organized collections of memories. A lot of interface design and computer-vision work is needed before a life-logging device will appeal to consumers and endure over months and years.
Autographer’s iPhone app hints at one potentially smart organization method: it has a map on the bottom half of the display, and as you browse images, it shows a dot indicating where each photo was taken. Tapping a picture calls up detailed sensor information gathered at the time the image was snapped—including the brightness of the light, the temperature, and the direction of the camera. A lot of this data is just noise, but seeing the geographic location of photos was valuable because it jogged my memory: “Oh yeah, that’s where I was when that happened.”
The value of forgetting
No matter how organized these tools may become, though, there’s something I just can’t get past: sometimes forgetting is even more helpful than remembering.
Anind Dey, an associate professor of human-computer interaction at Carnegie Mellon University, has been studying how self-monitoring or life logging can serve as a memory aid for Alzheimer’s patients or a tool to learn more about what’s going on in the lives of people with autism. Beyond that, he says, “I still think this is a niche market.”
One big reason is that retaining everything we experience “doesn’t really match the way we think,” Dey says. “I think of bad incidents in my life, and in my head I’ve made them better, or I’d be really unhappy.”
Me too. While I’m happy recalling events like the bike ride with my friend, there were some moments captured by my life-logging cameras that I’d rather not relive, like one particularly stressful Saturday night I spent at the wood shop helping my fiancé, Noah, finish up a project. The Narrative Clip’s camera captured hours of exhaustion and irritation as we fumbled to glue little pieces of wood into small slots cut out of a giant map. I had pretty much forgotten about that miserable night until I glanced back at a set of images that show Noah in the corner of the frame with a sad look on his face. Every time I look at it, I wince. And this wouldn’t even register on my lifetime scale of awful memories. It’s hard to imagine how much more difficult it would be to face photo evidence of, say, a friend’s or family member’s death.
The Narrative Clip lets you swipe to the left on any collection of images to reveal a delete button; Autographer makes it more complicated. Either way, I have to make a decision to delete these images, which brings the unpleasant memories to mind again.
I asked Bell whether recording everything makes him more likely to remember the things he’d rather forget. Laughing, he suggested that rather than deleting something, I put it in a folder labeled “Don’t Ever Look at This, and Forget It.” He’s not joking. Although he realizes there will be some photographs you never want to see again, he still thinks these logged memories can be useful: “The value, I think, is—well, this is something you can give to your therapist.”
I’d rather continue with my targeted approach to capturing, organizing, and sharing my life. There’s something nice and deliberate about taking a photo, even if I’m just pressing a virtual shutter button on my iPhone screen. Gadgets like the Autographer and the Narrative Clip take some of the work out of it, but like me, they come up short.
© 2014 MIT Technology Review