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March 2004

Photographic memories

Always-on camera captures life's fleeting moments


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If you are serious about never missing a moment, you're drawn to the idea of an always-on camera.

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 camera.

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 subject?

"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.

Sifting through the junk

"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."

So the next challenge, he says, "is, can we develop algorithms that will automatically pick out the interesting bits?"

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 bits.

Defining a good picture

The HP team's approach has been to whittle down the number of images to a manageable number from which to select. To do this, they developed algorithms that can figure out the photographers' head motion at any point and from that, infer what might be the best way of representing that sequence of images.

Some sequences are represented by stills. Others are stitched into panoramas and some are kept in full and can be played back as video.

Researchers have also experimented with recording a second channel of information from devices such as inertial sensors attached to the camera. With a rapid head motion, for example, many frames will be blurred and therefore of little interest. Information from the inertial sensor can then direct the algorithms to automatically cut those frames out.

Although the team's algorithms still tend to select too many images we'd consider boring, they are already managing to pick out the majority of the moments most of us would like to keep.

The question of privacy

One 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?

Slatter says he recognizes the concern, and notes that the issue is already being raised with camera-enabled cell phones.

Indeed, some U.S. states have passed laws that target improper photography using such phones. And many organizations are enacting policies that restrict their use as well, especially when there are strong security and intellectual property concerns.

Social 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 certain circumstances.

Lawmakers and society have many potential options for addressing these issues, he adds.

"HP is contributing to and tracking global standards to address potential privacy and civil rights concerns around new technologies," says Barbara Lawler, HP's Chief Privacy Officer. "The goal is to design with privacy considerations in mind."

Cameras 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 itself off.

On retail shelves soon?

Rather than focus on developing a product, the team is more interested in applying the insights they've gained about how to automatically determine whether a picture might be worth keeping in other digital photography contexts.

"Currently in digital photography," says Slatter, "we optimize things like the exposure, but there's very little to help us optimize things like getting the expression you want or avoiding someone blinking.

"As cameras become more powerful and you're able to capture more images per second," he adds, "why not use that little bit of video around each still to help you get a better still?"

The researchers have already implemented a 'that was interesting' button. This allows the user to run a camcorder all the time, always keeping the last five minutes of action in short-term memory. When the button is pressed, the camera commits those last five minutes to permanent storage.

The future of casual photography

The team is continuing efforts to develop more robust and powerful camera units. And researchers are working to refine their algorithms to more efficiently find the moments we'll treasure.

With HP staking at least a part of its future on the emotional power of digital imaging, Slatter's team hopes that the promise of never missing a moment -- and finding those moments after they're captured -- might offer the company a new connection with the millions of people who take digital photographs of their friends and families each year.

The promise is certainly one the researchers feel themselves.

"There's a moment we captured where one of my colleagues wearing the camera and holding his baby and turning him around," recalls Slatter. "It's a moment of real quality time with his child and when you see it you think, yes, people are really going to value that."

Related links

» On the use of attention clues for an autonomous wearable camera (tech report)
» Printing and Imaging Research Center

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