Smile when you talk to research legend Gordon Bell. You're on candid camera.
Bell wears two cameras around his neck all his waking hours. One of them he calls a SenseCam. It takes a digital photograph every 20 seconds or so -- all day, every day, year after year. (I'll tell you below how to buy your own SenseCam.) The other camera takes pictures and video only when Bell presses the right buttons.
It's all part of a project Bell calls MyLifeBits. He's documented the project, and made a case for why we'll all have MyLifeBits projects of our own, in a new book called Total Recall: How the E-Memory Revolution Will Change Everything.
The book's official Web site explains the MyLifeBits project:
"MyLifeBits captures and holds a lifetime's worth of articles, books, letters, memos, photos, presentations, music, home movies, and videotaped lectures. Gordon's archive includes phone calls, IM scripts, years of email, web pages visited, and daily activities captured by the SenseCam. One of the challenges of MyLifeBits has been to build applications, e.g. timelines and viewers for people to take their personal memorabilia out of the shoebox and store them digitally for all kinds of future usage from a daily aid to memory through record keeping to immortality."
This automated capture of everything is called lifelogging. Bell, who works as a principal researcher for Microsoft, is way ahead of everyone. But we're all definitely headed in his direction. Soon enough, lifelogging will go mainstream.
Why you'll lifelog
Many big cultural transformations occur when technology unleashes human nature. The digital technology trends are plain to see. Storage and digital cameras are getting cheaper and smaller. Wireless connectivity is becoming more ubiquitous.
More interestingly, however, cultural trends are all pointing toward an acceptance of lifelogging. People feel compelled to record their lives, and have for millennia. As technology progresses, it gets easier and therefore more popular.
Blogs. Twitter. Facebook. Evernote. Self-portraits with camera phones. The use of such sites and media prove that people instinctively capture more whenever capturing becomes easier.
In fact, the hardest part is coping with the huge variety of ways we can share thoughts and experiences. The state of the art in sharing right now brings all those ways together into a phenomenon called lifestreaming.
Lifestreaming was originally conceptualized as the capturing of all digital "stuff" you create or interact with for your own purposes -- kind of like a very detailed diary. But like blogs, lifestreaming has been co-opted into the social networking impulse. Now, the idea of lifestreaming is to capture your blog and Twitter posts, YouTube uploads, records of what music you listen to, videos you watch, blogs you read and so on. The audience is now both you and your social group. The purpose is identical to the purpose of Twitter and Facebook -- human connection and personal memory.
A friend of mine named Steve Rubel is at the forefront of a widespread public exploration of the possibilities of lifestreaming. He and others prefer Posterous. I have a Posterous account myself but use it only for posting iPhone pictures to Twitter. All I have to do is take a picture, then e-mail it to the address assigned to my account by Posterous. The service then posts a link to the picture on Twitter. You can post a wide range of media on Posterous, but so far I use it mainly for pictures.
I've been thinking about posting a lot more on Posterous. But I tend to forget. Lifestreaming only happens when you work at it. And that's where lifelogging comes in.
The definition of lifelogging has evolved over the years. It started out as a science-fiction-like lifestyle experiment to transmit live, first-person vantage-point video all day, every day. Think The Truman Show, the story of a man who discovered that his life was being broadcast around the world at every moment. But now it means all kind of things.
I'd like to propose a simplified definition: Lifelogging is automated lifestreaming. That means whatever experiences you'd like to share or record, you simply turn it on and the sharing or recording happens by itself.
Buy your own 'SenseCam'
BusinessWeek published a nice article on Bell and his MyLifeBits project and new book last month. The article was accompanied by a video that included footage from Bell's own SenseCam. The reporter in the video said: "Maybe you'd like to wear one of those SenseCams around your neck. But you can't have one. Those are custom-made."
That was true when he said it, but soon it won't be. A U.K.-based company called ViconRevue is transforming Bell's Microsoft-developed SenseCam into a consumer product.
The public version will have an adjustable frequency of automated photos, with a minimum of one every 30 seconds. It also will use an accelerometer (the kind used in cell phones like the iPhone) and light sensors to figure out when you're in a new environment -- say, when you walk into a restaurant -- and snap a picture at that moment. It will even have a heat sensor to detect when someone is standing in front of you, to make sure they get their picture taken.
The device has 1GB of storage that reportedly holds 30,000 pictures.
An $820 version of the camera for researchers will go on sale this year. The company plans a consumer version for release sometime next year at a yet-unspecified price.
I recommend that you visit the company's Web site and add your e-mail address to their update list. They'll tell you when and where you can buy the camera when that information becomes available.
The ViconRevue SenseCam is just the beginning. I imagine a universe of software tools and hardware products that automatically post to your "automated lifestream," or lifelog, whatever you choose to post.
For example, imagine a SenseCam that does face recognition and captures every face in a "log" that includes the subject's Facebook profile information.
Some ambitious start-up should create software that uses image recognition, GPS data, computer-activity monitoring and so on to summarize your activities intelligently, and post that information to your lifelog automatically. "Mike is writing his column." "Mike is begging his editor for more time to write his column." "Mike is eating lunch (again)." "Mike is walking with his wife." "Mike and his wife are watching a movie." All this could be posted on a timeline with SenseCam photos and other media.
These are some lifelogging approaches I can easily imagine. I'm sure there's a universe of lifelogging products we can't yet imagine.
Like all culture-shifting technologies, lifelogging comes with upsides and downsides. The upsides are:
- Better memory about our lives -- literally photographic memory.
- Evidence when we're falsely accused.
- Capturing of amazing events.
- Evidence against criminals and sociopaths when we witness crimes.
- Ability to share our memories, strengthen personal bonds.
- Leaving our lives for posterity.
- Self-examination. (Wow, I'm spending all my time working!)
But the downsides are:
- Potential privacy abuse.
- Potential accidental abuse of other people's privacy.
- Behavior change. (Will people act differently when everything is recorded and shared?)
History shows, however, that most people will gladly give up their privacy and take on a few other risks in order to enhance social sharing.
Lifelogging feels like science fiction. But it's real. It's culture-changing. And it's coming soon.