Microsoft created a stir with its SenseCam wearable camera a decade ago, and now OMG (Oxford Metrics Group) has announced Autographer, an updated version aimed mainly at the consumer market. Both were designed by electronics engineer Lyndsay Williams, formerly of Microsoft Research and now managing director of her own Girton Labs.
The SenseCam was designed to help people with Alzheimer's disease or other memory problems to capture their life experiences and share them with their doctors and carers. This patented "memory enhancement camera" captures the wearer's day in about 2,000 images, which can be replayed in about five minutes. The result is somewhere between still pictures and a movie, and makes events more accessible than viewing hundreds of hours of CCTV recordings.
The SenseCam's medical application was featured in a BBC2 TV Eyewitness programme in 2010, which also explored its effect on eye-witness reports of a pub fight.
The life-logger aims to capture significant events by using various sensors. There are half a dozen in the Autographer: accelerometer, light sensor, magnetometer, infra-red motion detector, and thermometer, with a GPS system to record locations. Photos are taken with its 5-megapixel camera when there are sudden changes that indicate significant actions. Williams says: "A lot of the design is similar to the iPhone 4, because I was working on both at the same time."
OMG already sells a Vicon Revue version of the camera into the medical research market, but it has very limited distribution. There are obvious business uses for people working in hazardous areas, or with hazardous materials, and perhaps for those who work with the public.
If police officers, traffic wardens, ticket inspectors, guard dogs etc wore Autographers, it could settle a lot of disputes. Williams says it could also improve behaviour, if people know everything is being recorded.
The Autographer does not record sound, though Williams says she has experimented with compressing a day's recordings into five-minute summaries. "It's pretty easy to filter out speech," she says. "Recording that would be an invasion of privacy, and would limit what people would say." And as she points out, there are plenty of other sound recording devices already on the market.
The Autographer should also appeal to consumers as a way of recording trips and holidays without constantly using a separate camera. Further, OMG says in a statement: "Autographer is designed to change the way we think about photography: one where moments are captured without intervention. The user can live the experience while Autographer spontaneously captures the stories that unfold. This is not just a new camera but a whole new photographic approach."
Autographer uses a glass wide-angle (136-degree field of view) fixed-focus lens. It has 8GB of built-in storage, Bluetooth communications, and weighs 58g. A smartphone app allows users to browse images on the go, while a desktop application provides editing facilities.
Williams says she is worried about the "Peeping Tom aspect" of life-logging cameras, and hopes the Autographer will not be abused.
This is probably a vain hope, though we have survived the arrival of countless "spy cameras" built into sunglasses, pens, radios and other objects. Also, the UK and some other countries already have widespread CCTV camera coverage, and the ubiquity of camera phones means that almost anything that happens in public can already be recorded. In the longer term, wearable devices such as Google Glasses represent an even greater threat.
For consumers, the Autographer's most obvious drawback is the cost. OMG says it will be available online in the UK November at £399, and the US price is $650. The cost should be less of an issue for people with Alzheimer's and so on, where (unlike the Revue) the device can be used without involving a physician.
Businesses that want to use Autographers to track construction workers, security staff, baggage handlers, police dogs or whatever, will no doubt run pilot projects to calculate the return on investment. It's certainly worth considering.