Magical mystery machine: How Memoto's lifelogging camera could change our memories
In about 17 hours, the Kickstarter campaign for the Memoto lifelogging camera will come to an end. It has been a wild success. The 12-person team from Sweden had hoped to raise $50,000 via the crowdfunding platform. Thanks to an initial burst of media attention, it passed that goal within four hours of starting the campaign. A month later, thanks to 2,800 backers, Memoto has raised more than $540,000.
More than the money raised, however, Memoto could be about to change something we hold very dear: our memories.
Memoto’s camera is not a new idea. Lifelogging – recording the minutiae of one’s day-to-day existence – has been around in various forms since the 1980s. From Steve Mann to Justin.tv, lifeloggers have used cameras and audio equipment to capture their lives in detail, boring parts included. Psychologists have been fascinated with the idea since at least 1951, when Roger Barker and Herbert Wright published “One Boy’s Day,” an exhaustive account of one full day in a 9-year-old’s life. Since 2004, Microsoft’s Gordon Bell has been recording his life with SenseCam, a video camera he wears on a string that hangs around his neck.
The idea has morphed in recent years. Gone for now is the lightweight idea of "lifecasting," but a movement towards seamlessly logging everything you do has grown. It's less about broadcasting yourself to others now, and more about self-examination.
In 2009, Michael Arrington predicted that “life recorders” would become this century’s wristwatch. Now, with the increasing popularity of the Quantified Self movement, lifelogging is again a source of fascination and intrigue. And thanks to companies like Memoto and OMG, maker of the Autographer, it could be about to go mainstream.
Depending on who you are, Memoto’s product is likely to make you go “Whoa! Cool!” or “Whoa! Creepy!” I had both reactions.
A Memoto camera prototype
The Memoto camera is about the size of a 3D postage stamp, and it clips onto your clothes – a shirt, a T-shirt, a sweater, whatever. It has no buttons. As long as it’s vertical, the 5-megapixel camera is always on, but a built-in accelerometer makes sure it turns itself off when laid flat. It comes with a GPS unit inside. There’s enough battery life in the device to last two days, and when it runs dry you can charge it via USB. When in use, it takes a high-resolution photo every 30 seconds.
What’s most powerful about the Memoto camera, however, is that it comes with a companion app that handles all your photos for you. Whenever you charge the device, the photos will automatically upload to Memoto’s servers. Then the app will sort your geotagged photos on a timeline, segmenting your photographed day into moments, while highlighting the best shots. The app will note where exactly each photo was taken and at what time.
Early backers on Kickstarter get all this for $200. When the device starts shipping in February, it’ll be $280. That makes the camera mass-market accessible in price. But do that many people want it?
So far, Memoto has at least proven the popularity of the concept within a small niche. More than 2,000 people have said they’re willing to buy it sight unseen. Given the prevalence of the early-adopter geek set and quantified selfers, that’s not really surprising. There is a chance, however, that the camera will attain a modicum of popularity.
Demand is hard to gauge, but the timing is good for a product like Memoto's camera from a technology point of view. In the past, lifelogging devices haven’t enjoyed the easy storage management offered by the cloud. They haven’t had companion apps that do all the data sorting for you. They haven’t been as small and sexy as the Memoto device. They haven’t had slickly produced promotional videos that tickle your emotion bones. And they have never been this cheap.
But then there are the socio-psychological barriers. Is wanting to record every moment of your life narcissistic? Does it cheapen the idea of memory? Why should we be interested in itemizing the flotsam and jetsam of existence in visual form? Isn’t this just an extension of the surveillance state? The personalization of the panopticon? Won’t it be a nightmare for privacy? Perhaps this is data overkill. Tech gone wild. Is it, as German writer Juli Zeh has apparently said, a case of “self-empowerment by self-enslavement”?
They’re all valid questions. And so far, it’s hard to answer any of them definitively. Despite its age, lifelogging is still a massive psychological experiment.
Until recently, I would have said those doubts were enough to stop me from ever wanting to use the Memoto camera. But I’ve changed my mind.
A couple of weeks ago, I visited Memoto’s Stockholm office and met with the startup’s co-founder and marketing guy, Oskar Kalmaru, a clean-cut hipster, 29 years old, father of a 2-year-old boy. He’s not particularly geeky, and he doesn’t come across as the sort of guy who makes endless lists or takes a note of every single thing that happens in his life.
Before Memoto, he had an online video startup that failed to find a big audience. Kalmaru was recruited to Memoto by his friend Martin Källström, who previously founded a blog-search startup called Twingly. Björn Wesén, a high-tech electronics designer, is the third co-founder. As well as the $500,000 they have now raised on Kickstarter, the guys got $500,000 in funding from London-based investment firm Passion Capital.
I went into my meeting with Kalmaru expecting to be impressed by the technology. I thought we’d talk a lot about the quantified self. And that certainly happened. What I didn’t expect, however, is that having a conversation in Memoto’s quiet center city office would so quickly become emotional.
Memoto co-founder Oskar Kalmaru wearing the lifelogging camera
Kalmaru didn’t even have a working prototype on hand. All he could show me was a mock-up of the casing, produced by a 3D printer. (This, by the way, is one of the problems of a Kickstarter-supported device – there’s no assurance that the thing is actually going to work as marketed. Until it ships, it is still very much a concept waiting to be proved.) But he did manage to get me thinking differently about a device I once would have sneered at.
The combination of camera and app, he said, is a memory preserver and enhancer, a tool that allows you to relive moments in a way that makes your life seem longer. “What if you could live your life twice?” he asked.
These were the words of a marketer, but they weren’t without merit. Studies suggest that visual cues can help prompt memories, which can in turn improve recall. Alan Smeaton, a computer professor at Dublin University, has shown that students who spent a minute at the end of the day scrolling through images taken by Microsoft’s SenseCam experienced stimulation of their short-term memories. "You actually remember things you'd already forgotten," Smeaton told Fast Company in 2006. “You’d see somebody you met in a corridor and had a two-minute conversation with that you'd completely forgotten about. And you'd go, ‘Oh, I forgot to send an email to that guy!’ It’s bizarre. It improves your recall by 100 percent.”
Such cameras have also been shown to help restore recall for people with Alzheimer’s disease. A 2007 study done by Microsoft Research in conjunction with scientists at Cambridge University concluded that cues captured by the SenseCam “can be shown to provide effective links to events in people’s personal past." It also said that the automatic way in which SenseCam captures images results in cues that are as effective in triggering memory as images that people capture on their own initiative. In fact, the study suggested, the passively captured images may even cause people to remember more events than they would if they had actively taken the photos.
The implications of these findings are not trivial. Technology aside, memory is the only proof we have that the past actually happened. And, for all its flaws and fallibility, human memory has been finely calibrated by millennia of evolution. In some cases, memory loss may be a protection mechanism so we can cope with trauma. It can also help us forgive. In other cases, memory loss is an incredible impediment, a disease. If we are increasingly able to tinker with it, it could have significant effects on our psychology, our idea of self, our concept of time, our sense of emotion. Lifelogging technology tugs at the corners of the human psyche.
These ideas were brought home to me when Kalmaru asked what it would be like to have a photo of the first time you met the girl you would one day marry. What would it be like to have a photo of your grandad from the last minute you spent with him before he died?
In my skeptical “tech gone mad” frame of mind, I hadn’t considered those possibilities. Suddenly, I realized the potential of this technology to have an impact beyond mere nostalgia or ego-whimsy. Then I thought of someone I lost suddenly and unexpectedly 20 years ago. I have a lot of photos of him, but they’re printed on paper that’s trapped in rusting frames. Most of them are posed shots, the results of photographic events. They are struts for my memory of him, but still, two decades on, my mind can’t help but lose some of his substance. In my mind, sadly, his outlines have become blurred.
Sitting there with Kalmaru, I fell quiet for a moment as I contemplated what it would be like to have candid, living photos of him – him being alive – from the day of his death. It wasn’t easy to return to my line of questioning. I left that morning convinced that I at least wanted to try the Memoto camera.
“We wouldn’t need Memoto if it was only about the weddings, birthdays, and promotions,” says Matthias Mehl, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Arizona. “A lot of life takes place in those moments when the little things happen that would otherwise be forgotten.” This was the original concept behind Twitter as well; why co-founders Evan Williams and Jack Dorsey expected seemingly throw-away messages would come to build true intimacy.
For more than a decade, Mehl has been studying the psychological effects of life-recording via a device called the Electronically Activated Recorder (EAR), which captures only audio. He feels positively about the technology and says if we really want to learn about human psychology, studying the mundane moments of life can be more useful than the questionnaires psychologists usually rely on. He sees such technology as a tool for indulging in nostalgia, reliving good times. He has young kids who do the cutest things when you don’t have a video recorder pointed at them. Being able to capture those candid moments would be special.
Of course, such technology can also capture the bad times. Accidents. Arguments. Break-ups. If you are prone to rumination and getting stuck in the past, it could prove problematic. Mehl was wearing the EAR when the planes hit the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. He has listened to the audio from that time only once. “It is very powerful to go back,” he says. “It’s very powerful, and very intense.”
Mehl’s biggest concern with the technology is privacy. To what extent should you require the consent of the subjects of your lifelogging photos? What of bystanders in the street? In certain countries, the legal implications are not clear.
But then again, it’s just an intensification of public photography, which is widely accepted in most countries. Google’s Street View has already inured many of us to the idea that, for better or worse, our image can be captured any time, anywhere, and be displayed publicly. London has a surveillance network so vast that the average person is caught on camera 300 times a day. We need fret about “1984” no longer. It’s already here.
Actually, Kalmaru suggested that using Memoto’s camera, apart from being an act of free speech, might help citizens claim back a shred of personal power from the surveillance state. That’s a fair statement, but it’s incomplete. You may well use the camera as a tool of personal empowerment, but by wearing it, you are also acting as an agent of surveillance, even if the master you serve is only yourself.
Memoto’s camera has other potential drawbacks. There’s a fair chance that the novelty of using the device will wear off quickly. Many of us have started wearing pedometers with good intentions, only to tire of having to remember to clip the things to our clothing every time we go for a walk. And wearing the camera in public broadens the potential for awkward social encounters, especially in settings where your friends don’t take well to being the subject of what could be perceived to be a pervy personal documentary.
From a product perspective, the most crucial part of Memoto’s technology is not the actual camera – it’s the app. The app’s efficacy in organizing photos and making it easy to find the ones that matter is central to the whole experience. It is key to making the product both useful and delightful. It’s almost unthinkable that the app is going to work perfectly straight out of the box, but it’ll have to function well enough to be able to keep people engaged and to build trust. The Memoto app has to be a sturdy warden for our memories.
If Memoto can somehow navigate the many concerns its technology raises – ethical, social, legal, business, psychological – it could be a frontrunner in a grand international experiment that has the potential to reveal insight on how memory works and, by extension, what it means to be human. For that very reason, the Memoto camera is thrilling, fascinating, and terrifying. That’s why, despite my nagging doubts about privacy, despite my concerns about how the camera will affect the way I interact with the world, and despite its Orwellian overtones, I want one.
After all, as the psychology professor Matthias Mehl informs me with a cheerful laugh, “You only live once.” And that is true, no matter how many times you let yourself relive it.