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[ L ] Removable Media For Our Minds

What if we could rewind to yesterday? What if we could watch our entire lives flash before our eyes with the click of button? The possibility is not as far fetched as one might think.

Too often, our memories don't serve us well. We lose our keys. We forget names. As we age, the home movies that play in our heads begin to look like fifth generation VHS copies.

Last month, Lyndsay Williams of Microsoft Research's Cambridge laboratory demonstrated SenseCam, a wearable, sensor-laden digital camera that automatically documents the day for later reference. For example, each time the wearer walks into a different room, the change in lighting triggers the camera to snap a 180-degree fish-eye shot. A sudden movement, a change in ambient temperature, the body heat of someone passing -- these are all considered photo ops.

"The sort of problems we're trying to solve are related to memory recall," Williams says. "Where did you leave your spectacles? Who did you meet during a previous day?"

After a day of use, Williams explains, the device's 128 megabyte flash memory is filled with approximately two thousand time-stamped photos ready to be downloaded to a desktop PC. "It's a black box data recorder for the human body," she says.

That seems like an overly dark comparison, especially after hearing Wiliams rattle off a few likely SenseCam scenarios. Wouldn't it be great, she asks, if you could scan through photos from a dinner you had weeks ago for a glimpse of the label on a particularly tasty bottle of wine? What tourist on holiday wouldn't don a SenseCam to avoid the hassle of repeatedly reaching for the point-and-shoot?

In some ways, SenseCam is a visual version of What Was I Thinking, a so-called audio "memory prosthesis" that MIT Media Lab student Sunil Vemuri is building. Vemuri's system consists of a GPS-equipped PDA that records all of the chitchat in his life and tags it with location information. The recordings are then automatically transcribed and cataloged on his laptop PC.

Massive collections call for mighty organization, lest our hard drives become the digital equivalent of dusty attics randomly strewn with old memories.

The Memory Recorder

In a 1945 Atlantic Monthly article, Vannevar Bush proposed the Memex, "a device in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility." At Microsoft's Bay Area Research Center, computing pioneer Gordon Bell and his colleagues are building just such a system. Indeed, Williams considers their software Memex, called MyLifeBits, to be a natural repository for the digital memories generated by SenseCam.

As part of the MyLifeBits project, Bell has digitally encoded every article, book, CD, letter, memo, and photo from his archives into a single database. He's now recording phone calls, television, and Web sites he visits as well. Meanwhile, the MyLifeBits software, developed by Jim Gemmell and Roger Leuder, enables the raw data to be annotated with text and verbal cues. Timelines, graphs, and maps help locate, contextualize, and retrieve specific bits of information.

For example, tagging SenseCam images with GPS coordinates enables a user to click on a map to literally see where they've been. Other more advanced classification and "document similarity ranking" systems could reveal non-obvious connections between your past and present. For instance, the system might automatically link the name of a vaguely familiar person you met at a conference in your hometown with a photo of that same person attending your fifth birthday party.

Some of the MyLifeBits capabilities may be integrated into Windows in the next few years. The end goal though, Bell says, is nothing short of the ability to Google your entire life. After all, as the MyLifeBits researchers point out in a recent scientific paper, "there is no point in constructing a 'write once, read never' memory."

Nokia's Lifeblog, announced last week, is something of a scaled-down MyLifeBits for mobile devices. Lifeblog should not be confused with LifeLog, a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency program to build a wearable system of cameras, microphones, sensors, and software to record and analyze behavior. The LifeLog effort was quietly killed earlier this year. Far less insidious, Lifeblog is a chronological digital diary for the multimedia memories collected during the course of a day -- snapshots, MMSs, calendar items. "The mobile telephone is becoming a life recorder," Nokia usability guru Christian Lindholm told the BBC News.

Clearly, Lifeblog, SenseCam, What Was I Thinking, and MyLifeBits are just baby-steps toward true removable media for the mind. But they also hint at the challenges we'll face as we begin filling our hard drives with, quite literally, a lifetime of data.

"Computers have reached the point in which continuous, verbatim recording of an individual's life experiences is technologically feasible," Vemuri writes on his Web site. "The challenge now is turning vast repositories of such recordings into a useful resource while respecting the social, legal, and ethical ramifications of ubiquitous recording."

The first step is remembering to back up your data.


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