If humans may be viewed as the sum total of their memories, then at our doorstep may be a life changing revolution: the ability to store one’s entire life experiences on an accessible and easily searchable file. In this article, we examine this idea, as well as some of the problems involved in its application, and present a unique project towards this end being carried out at Microsoft's research laboratories.
Who doesn't wish to keep a record of a beautiful sunset that particularly impressed us in childhood, our first kiss or, for that matter, an important conversation with the boss that took place a few months back? One of our shortcomings is a constant st ruggle to remember. How difficult it can be sometimes to recall the name of the person you need to meet in an hour, the important phone number your secretary just read you on the phone, or that very important item your wife told you not to forget to bring home this evening. But what if you had a magical device that would allow you to rewind reality and see exactly what happened? A few years back I began thinking about what could bring this dream closer to reality.
The features required to make such a device possible can be divided into three elements: first there is the hardware, which, as we shall soon see, actually presents the smaller set of problems. The software is saddled with a far more complicated series of hurdles, and finally there are social and perhaps legal issues that would inevi tably accompany the large-scale implementation of such a technology.
In terms of hardware, we would require one or two miniature high definition wide-angle cameras, which could take high definition (HD) video, that could be attached to our glasses or sunglasses. (They might look geeky at first but in a few years it might be possible to actually integrate them into the glasses similarly to MP3 and Spy eyewear glasses.) Microphones with the ability to locate the direction from which the sound originates would also be required. Other hardware add-ons could be eye-tracking equipment, which would register what you were looking at in any given moment (using equipment similar to the Stanford Poynter Project, for example), and a GPS receiver, which would inform you of where you where at any given time. Since most of our day is often spent indoors and current generation GPS receivers don't work well indoors, new solutions would have to be found for this problem (such as inc reased sensitivity GPS receivers).
Perhaps the biggest hardware roadblock would be data flow and data storage. Using a wireless transmitter on the glasses to transmit real time HD quality video and audio would require a great deal of bandwidth, but more importantly it would consume a great deal of power, giving the recording glasses a very short operation time. Therefore, until more advanced batteries and power saving wireless broadband would become available, the best solution would probably be a wired connection, which brings up the second problem – storage. A DVD-quality video consumes about 4 MB/s, even with real time compression, we would still end up with around 1 MB/s if we would like to preserve a reasonable HD quality. If a full day (which would surely require more than one battery) were to be recorded, approximately 57 GB of storage space (1 MB/s for about 16 hours) would be required. Although this is within the limits of current day portable hard drives, it is still very expensive (about $25 per day on storage alone at today's prices).
But hardware issues are slight in comparison to the problems on the software end. Let's say that you have recorded a full month of your life and would like to find what you said to a friend in a meeting though you don't recall when or even where it took place. You could of course start running the 480 hour video and look, but even fast forwarding, it probably would not be a very good use of your time. So how can you search a 1.7 Terabyte video for a few specific seconds? Well, currently there is no simple solution to this problem but there are a few technologies that if integrated might help. Voice recognition technology has been evolving for many years and recently has attained a pretty acceptable level. However it usually requires training and relatively ideal conditions (a microphone in front of your face and a fairly noiseless environment). For our purpose, the voice recognition software would need to be able to recognize what different people are saying without training and in less than ideal conditions (outdoors, in noisy crowded places, etc.). The software would also have to perform another trick, that is, recognize voices without long training sessions. Facial recognition, could be implemented to enhance this. By combining the information from the voice recognition and facial recognition softwares, it would be possible to analyze exactly who we were talking to and what was said. The eye tracking movement hardware could also provide important information in this respect. GPS could add another level by stating where the conversation took place and even what we were looking at at the time.
Even if all these hardware and software hurdles could be overcome to create a device capable of real time HD video recording and data analysis, socio-psychological and legal problems would inevitably crop up in our society in which privacy is a sacred value. Not to mention what what would happen if some unauthorized person somehow gained access to your life's database!
Actually implementing the idea described above is still at least 10-20 years away, but, as described below, partial implementation is already underway and might bring actual benefits to all of us in the near future.