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Wednesday, March 5th, 2008

'Life logging' lets people digitally record all the details of their lives

HALIFAX - When a friend of hers lost his keys a few years ago, British researcher Lyndsay Williams helped him retrace his steps that day to remember where he might have left them.

And then she had an idea: what if there was a way to catalogue someone's day - everywhere they've been, all the people they've seen - electronically?

Anyone could have an instant record of virtually any part of their life, and people with memory problems could quickly scroll through key events.

"I thought you could get a camera that could record all eventful things in a day, interesting things that you see, like people, etc.," says Williams, who invented just such a device while working for Microsoft in Cambridge, England.

Williams created the SenseCam, one of several emerging devices for an activity called "life logging" - essentially trying to digitally capture as much of your life as possible.

The SenseCam is a small camera that hangs around a user's neck and tries to figure out which parts of the day are worth remembering, and which are mundane enough to forget. It measures light to determine when a user enters a new room, heat to detect people and sound to identify interesting events that might be worth a photo.

The device is being tested in clinical trials to help people with Alzheimer's disease by having them review the images from the camera at the end of the day to refresh their fading memories - and the research so far shows that it can improve the short-term recall for some patients.

Whether users have memory problems or just want to keep track of their lives, Williams sees the devices as a sort of "memory prosthesis."

"It's really like a data logging box for the human body rather than an aircraft," says Williams.

Life logging methods range from wearable cameras and audio recorders to videophones, and the goals vary.

Some self-described life loggers use the technology simply to keep a personal, private record of their lives, while others instantly beam images from their day to the Internet for public consumption.

Microsoft isn't selling the SenseCam to the public yet, and while Williams isn't involved with the company or the SenseCam project anymore, she hopes the device and others like it will eventually become commonplace.

"Then the brain is free for more creative processes rather than having to remember what you've done," she says. "It just brings back all the memories of the day - you may have eight hours of recording and you can replay them back in about three minutes."

Nokia has introduced a type of life logging program for its cellphones. The software takes messages, photos, videos and sound clips and organizes them into a timeline - a sort of biographical calendar.

As well, an online community called Glogger lets users download software to cellphones and automatically beam back photos or streaming video of what they're doing at any moment. The site suggests users hang a phone around their neck and give the world a live window into their lives.

One of the more prolific life loggers is a U.S.-based researcher with Microsoft named Gordon Bell, who has been digitizing virtually every part of his life - from pictures and videos to greeting cards, phone call recordings and personal letters - to put them in a searchable database called the MyLifeBits project.

Life loggers say the activity is different than blogging in two important ways: first, the goal isn't necessarily to publish the content on the web, though some people do; and second, rather than having to sit down and craft a blog entry, life loggers can use technology to automate the process and make sense of large amounts of information.

Alan Smeaton, a computer science professor at Dublin City University in Ireland, is developing complex software that will take all those images and organize them by importance. He predicts the most interesting life logging possibilities are still to come.

"At the moment it's for those 'out-there' applications," he says.

"What we're doing is developing the technology which will record all of the aspects of your day, and the applications will fall out of that."

Smeaton notes that privacy becomes a concern when people start wearing cameras or audio recorders to capture everything - and everyone - they see and hear.

But he says it's no different than the endless number of cameras trained on us everywhere we go.

"In the U.K., there are 4.5 million CCTV cameras - isn't that awesome?" he says. "We're very blase about CCTV coverage. It's just become the norm."

Smeaton says life logging is a self-empowering form of what's been called sousveillance - the act of recording everyone else, as opposed to surveillance, which is someone else watching you.

The term was coined by University of Toronto researcher Steve Mann, a self-described cyborg who's been broadcasting his life onto the Internet in one form or another for more than 20 years.

Mann, who has replaced a large obtrusive helmet camera that he wore in the 1980s with a device that looks like an ordinary pair of sunglasses, says life logging - which he also refers to as cyborg logging or life casting - is only going to grow.

"There's a whole industry growing around this," says Mann, who started the Glogger website.

"You could say the same thing about computers - why have a computer? That's what people used to say.

"I see it (life logging) becoming more universal. It used to be if you went into a bank they might have surveillance cameras, but not everywhere - but now everywhere you go you have surveillance cameras. I think more people are realizing the value of their own life."


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