by Simon Firth
Your daughter's first smile. Your son's joy the
first time he catches a ball. The wink your favorite
uncle always gave you, but that he'd never do on
Spontaneous, unguarded, fleeting -- they're often
the moments in our lives we most want to photograph.
But these moments are also those we frequently
miss -- gone before we could reach for a camera.
But what if we could easily capture such priceless
moments? What wouldn't most of us give to have
picture albums full of them?
That's the thought driving a research project
called Casual Photography, now running at HP Labs
Bristol, UK, where researchers are exploring what
it would take to truly never miss a moment we'd
like recorded for posterity.
Their answer -- an experimental wearable camera
that records everything we see -- has led them
to devise some neat gadgets and software solutions.
And it's had them pondering such fundamental questions
as what makes a moment priceless and what role
cameras should play in our lives in the future.
An always-on camera
"If you are serious about never missing a moment," says
Phil Cheatle, Casual Photography team member, "you
are drawn into the idea of an always-on camera."
HP has no current plans to sell such a camera.
But as a world leader in digital imaging, the company
is dedicated to helping consumers capture, share
and print the best photos possible. Besides offering
the promise of never missing a moment, the team's
work could someday let consumers automatically
select the images they most want to keep.
Cheatle notes that ads for the new generation
of camera-enabled mobile phones promise you'll
never miss an image. But "plenty of moments are
missed," he argues, "if the camera phone is still
in your pocket."
To test the value of having a camera running all
the time, Cheatle took a conventional camcorder with
him on vacation to Venice, Italy, and let it run
for eight hours straight without once looking through
the viewfinder -- just pointing it in the direction
that he was looking.
The result, he reports, was a lot of boring images
but also a number of real gems, including a perfect
snapshot of the Bridge of Sighs taken while passing
beneath it in a gondola -- an image his wife failed
to find her camera in time to snap.
The unobtrusive camera
So if an always-on camera is useful, how do you
ensure spontaneity for both photographer and
"You don't want to be always waiting to take pictures," says
David Slatter, Casual Photography project manager. "You
just want to get on with your life and be left
with some nice photos."
Those thoughts led researchers to develop camera
prototypes where both the camera and the method
of data recording became progressively less intrusive.
The camera's most recent instantiation, principally
developed by researchers Guy Adams and Gary Porter,
places the lens in the nose bridge of a pair of
glasses. The lens camera records hours of high-quality
video at 20 images per second onto either a very
large compact flash card or a 1.8-inch hard drive.
But collecting the images is just the first part
of the challenge.
So the next challenge, he says, "is,
can we develop algorithms that
will automatically pick out the
"If your wearable camera is
always on," Slatter explains, "you're
not going to miss any moments,
but you're also going to get
a load of junk."
In some respects this is where
the Casual Photography project
really breaks new ground.
Although other research labs
(and even some undercover investigators)
have experimented with tiny cameras
placed on the body to record
everything a person sees, very
few people are trying to find
a way to automatically process
the enormous quantities of resulting
data to mine it for the best
a good picture
The HP team's
been to whittle
down the number
of images to
which to select.
To do this,
that can figure
out the photographers'
at any point
and from that,
might be the
best way of
Others are stitched into
some are kept
in full and
can be played
back as video.
Researchers have also experimented
a second channel
such as inertial
to the camera.
With a rapid
will be blurred
of little interest.
from the inertial
cut those frames
to select too
pick out the
most of us
key issue that needs to
be addressed is privacy.
Is it ever OK to wear a
camera that is so small
that no one will notice?
says he recognizes the concern,
and notes that the issue is
already being raised with camera-enabled
some U.S. states have passed
laws that target improper
such phones. And many organizations
are enacting policies that
restrict their use as well,
especially when there are
strong security and intellectual
taboos about what we can
look at, let alone photograph,
are strong, Slatter
notes. They also vary from
culture to culture. Potential
legal restrictions may vary
widely as well. But his hope
is that existing
customs and practices each
society has about conventional
photography will be built
on to accommodate always-on
and even covert cameras under
and society have many potential
options for addressing these
issues, he adds.
is contributing to and tracking
global standards to address
potential privacy and civil
rights concerns around new
Barbara Lawler, HP's
Chief Privacy Officer. "The
goal is to design with privacy
considerations in mind."
could be made to have a light
flashing when they are on,
Slatter suggests. Or they
could be required to conform
to a standard that switched
the camera off when it receives
a certain radio signal. Then in certain
locations -- say a movie or
a store changing room --
the camera will switch
retail shelves soon?
to help us
able to capture
per second," he
not use that
get a better
have already implemented a 'that
user to run
all the time,
future of casual
team is continuing
to more efficiently
-- and finding
a new connection
of my colleagues
him around," recalls