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Tiny, automated cameras are latest ‘quantified self’ toys

(Boston Globe) In this episode of Tech Lab, Hiawatha Bray talks about several small cameras that take photos while being worn by the user.
(Boston Globe) In this episode of Tech Lab, Hiawatha Bray talks about several small cameras that take photos while being worn by the user.
Hiawatha Bray via Autographer

I live a boring life, and I've got the pictures to prove it.

Hundreds of them were shot in the past five days by two little cameras I clipped to my shirt that automatically took pictures as I went about my daily routine and assembled the results into a visual diary that I could share with others — a portfolio of the prosaic. The devices are the latest toys for the "quantified self" movement, in which millions of us document and even broadcast every little aspect of our lives using smartphones, fitness sensors, sleep monitors, and, of course, digital cameras.

And what do the tiny cameras reveal about me? I spend too much time sitting in front of dinner plates and keyboards and not enough jogging along the beach. And I have lousy posture. I could have figured this out by glancing in a mirror; instead, I've got a permanent visual record of my shortcomings.

Many people who strap cameras onto their bodies are destined for the nearest emergency room. GoPro Inc. rakes in nearly $1 billion a year selling ruggedized video cameras that some people attach to their mountain bikes or motorcycle helmets right before they do something stupid.


But the quantified self folks are after bigger game. The true believers among them think we're the first generation of humans truly capable of knowing ourselves — not through prayer and meditation, but from the unrelenting accumulation of data. The most passionate "lifeloggers" record every aspect of their existence — not just phone calls and e-mails, but heart rate and blood pressure. And of course, digital photos of every place and person along the way.

It might seem like distilled narcissism, but it's easier than keeping a diary. It can steer people into a healthier lifestyle, help them manage their time, and preserve their best memories.


Hiawatha Bray and the Autographer automatic camera commuted on the Red Line.Hiawatha Bray

And it's surprising how many people are interested. When a Swedish startup called Narrative asked for $50,000 on the Kickstarter crowdfunding site to build its camera, more than half a million dollars rolled in. The result was the Narrative Clip, a sleek little $229 clip-on camera that fires off a photo every 30 seconds. Meanwhile, some engineers in London have developed the Autographer, a much fancier $400 clip-on that uses a compass, GPS chip, and motion and color sensors to decide for itself when to take a photo.

Autographer's photos are saved to your computer. Narrative Clip allows you to save them to your machine or to the cloud. As with any other photo app, you can share these pictures with friends, via social media. What's the harm? There are already plenty of dull photos on Facebook.

As a quantified-self groupie, I've been doing some entry-level lifelogging for a year or so. I fire up the RunKeeper phone app before starting my morning jog, and it stores a record of distance run and calories burned. My phone also runs Saga, an app that tracks every place I go — the office, the supermarket, church, the barbershop. It literally is a list of the stops I've made along the day. But by accumulating this data, it tells me how I spend my time, displaying charts that show, for example, my commute compared with other users', or my favorite places to shop.


So where was I at 8:30 p.m. Jan. 17? At home, same as most every night, according to Saga. Indeed, a quick survey of the app showed I spend most of my days in three or four places, doing three or four things. Anybody with a pocket calculator can quantify my life; there's not that much going on. I realized this even before I clipped on these cameras, but a few hundred digital stills eliminated all doubt.

Both cameras served up the same mundane images: photos of my wife, a kitchen full of dirty dishes, the interior of my old Ford, and the produce department at the nearby supermarket. Move along; nothing to see here except a relentlessly average life.

I thought about the surfers and skiers who try more daring stunts just to make their GoPro videos more exciting. Why not me? No cliff-jumping or other craziness. Instead, I could be the guy with the red convertible, the guy who goes to the best parties and hangs with the most interesting people. If I invested in a Narrative Clip or an Autographer, I'd almost feel obligated to become a more exciting guy.

Even so, the Narrative Clip offers software to liven up even my little portfolio. For $9 a month, users upload their pictures to an online service where computers analyze each photo. Too dark or blurry images are discarded, and the rest are edited into a slideshow for viewing on any Apple or Android phone or tablet. It worked pretty well at singling out the occasional interesting moment. The company's working on a way to let users export the slideshows as video, to share with friends.


The Autographer offers no such feature; you just dump the photos onto your personal computer and edit them as you please. But then, the Autographer takes much better photos. They're crisp, bright, and full of detail, compared with the grainier look of Narrative Clip images.

The Clip simply snaps the shutter twice a minute, no matter where it's pointed. To switch it off, just place it on a table, lens-down. You can also shoot photos at will by tapping it twice, a gesture that attracted odd looks as I tested the Clip on the subway.

The more sophisticated Autographer decides for itself whether to take a photo. It detects changes in lighting, camera position, and even temperature to guess whether it's pointed at something interesting.

Because these cameras are pinned to your body, you're never quite sure which way they're pointing. Both compensate with wide-angle lenses, which can give photos a fish-eye look. I captured many fine images of various ceilings. After a few such failures, I began walking as erect as a drill sergeant, my chest thrust forward like a zoom lens. It helped — when I remembered to do it. And yet, the pictures remained mercilessly, doggedly dull.

Is it too late for me to change? Can I live a more exciting life — in pictures, at least? Unfortunately, both companies want their cameras back, and what's the point of being the Most Interesting Man in the World if I don't have the photos to prove it?


Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.