by Martin Veitch

Microsoft SenseCam/Vicon Revue interviews and (not so) shocking pictures

Aug 10, 2010
IT Strategy

In a recent blog, I scribbled down some early impressions of the Vicon Revue, a wearable camera that snaps pictures automatically to document the owner’s day. Since then I’ve continued to be impressed by the product, especially given that it has only very recently become commercially available, and in spite of the rough edges I’ve already noted such as image quality, blur, lack of audio support and so on. Vicon, a UK company, has licensed Microsoft Research’sSenseCam technology and sells the cameras for £500 for use in medical and research fields, focusing on patients suffering from memory loss. To get a catch-up on the future of the product I talked by phone with Vicon CEO Nick Bolton and Steve Hodges, Microsoft Research principal hardware engineer.

Firstly, I asked Hodges if my combination of being intrigued and interested in other applications — yet maintaining caveats over product execution — was typical.

“We obviously invented the technology and there’s a huge range of exciting possible applications,” he said. “Users invariably get excited and others are sceptical and are surprised when they use it. In the research prototype we chose components that were expedient and Vicon wanted to get the product out quite quickly so they based a lot on our prototype.”

Higher-resolution images and reduced blur are of course possible, he added, but argued that the cumulative effect of watching sequential images often overcame the limitations of individual images.

“Looking at any one image, none of them is great quality, but watch them in a stream and it’s not so important. When you talk to [users with memory loss problems] about an event, all of a sudden trigger images can remind them.”

Often these are not the best images either in quality or subject, he said, adding that one user was prompted by an out of focus and blurred picture of a stairwell.

So what about new applications beyond aids to memory? One possibility is a trial by Oxford University with the British Heart Foundation looking at diet and exercise to provide a reality check against trials documenting how much subjects are eating and what they are doing to keep fit. “Self-reporting is notoriously inaccurate but with a device like this they believe that will be more accurate,” he said.

SenseCam technology dates back several years in terms of R&D but Hodges said that Microsoft does not have a strong focus on developing the product further itself.

“We see a lot of potential for SenseCam and over the last few years there has been a focus on medical and memory, but we’re absolutely open to expanding [to other licensees].”

This could, for example, be helping teachers review effective practices in the classroom over the course of the day “to consider whether they might have done things differently”. Vicon’s Bolton declined to provide sales figures, citing financial reporting strictures, but claimed the Revue is “selling faster than expected” and that there is a “fantastic latent need for the product”.

In terms of future development there had been requests for GPS capabilities and audio although the latter might pose problems in “how to surface the feature without losing the advantages of compression”. One possibility could be capturing an audio trace on each side of the image’s moment of capture. The issue of not having a means of keeping the camera steady -it sits tethered around the user’s neck like a lanyard — has been noted, but Bolton said Vicon is not ready to give away features of possible future iterations.

Also, as he notes, some of the desired features, including audio capture, could raise tricky issues as to appropriate use of the device and the potential for personal intrusion.

That privacy aspect could be raised to a higher scale were SenseCam technology to enter the consumer sector, a field in which Vicon as a technical professional motion video capture specialist has no interest. However, I put it to Vicon and Microsoft (albeit to a lukewarm response) that putting the technology into broader applications might enable an ecosystem to emerge and build on open APIs.

That’s for the future maybe. For now, the Vicon Revue remains an intriguing but early-stage insight into how digital devices can capture our diurnal lives.