Beware the head-cam!

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Beware the head-cam!

by Guy Kewney | posted on 24 November 2001

Would you wear a web-cam in your hat? Built into your glasses? All day, wherever you went?
Guy Kewney

Driving down a motorway in France, two ordinary guys notice flames coming from the back of Concorde as it takes off. On a street corner in New York, a tourist notices a low-flying airliner.

A century ago, they’d have told their story as an eye-witnesses to a newspaper. Fifty years ago, they’d have been interviewed on radio. Ten years ago, they’d have taken a picture of it.

Today, they have a video camera. And tomorrow?

To get a good idea, you need a privileged pass to the secret areas of Hewlett-Packard’s booming research rival to Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center, which gave the world so many innovations. And you want to chat to the guys in charge of the “casual capture” project.

But already, we can see a glimpse of how news like this would be handled in another decade.

Never before, has the world’s electronic news network been able to report from inside a hi-jacked aircraft. But this year, it happened, because today’s American commuter jet has a phone built into the seat of nearly every row; even if they hadn’t had cellphones, the seat phones could have been used by passengers to tell relatives what was happening. They were; some of them got through to phone answering machines, and we have their voices.

We’ve seen video of astonishing events before; the image of Concorde flaming to its death was captured by a chance passer-by wielding a video camera. But in the future, things may change even more, as the Web grows up.

It was noticeable, as the September 11 tragedy happened, that people ran to their browsers; the BBC Web site was jammed. So were most of the other major portals and aggregators. And that is what happened in the infancy of the Web; what will the future bring?

At Hewlett-Packard’s research laboratory, they are working on ways of getting cameras into smaller, and less obtrusive formats. They have a pair of ordinary looking sunglasses, with the camera built into the bridge over the nose. The only giveaway is the cable coming out the back of the ear-piece, and that looks like a safety lanyard.

Everything the wearer of those glasses sees, can be recorded.

In ten years, there will be far more video available. Look at every street corner, where Webcams are springing up, pointing boringly at nothing. Think of huge disk arrays, recording 24-hour buffers. Remember all the next-generation phones, with full-motion video cameras built in, and always-on Internet connections. Add in almost universal broadband.

The type of image you get if you routinely monitor every image that everybody sees, is utterly different from what a photographer would see.

Look at the history of photography; the first pictures were studio work. You couldn’t take them out in the open; you needed studio lights, huge, non-portable cameras. They were all rigidly posed, sometimes over several minutes of exposure time.

When portable cameras arrived, we got genuine outdoor shots; but you still had no doubt you were being photographed. People saw the camera, and posed. They stopped doing what would incriminate them.

With wearable cameras, they won’t know they’re being photographed. We can get live footage of a mugger walking up to the victim and wielding the weapon.

Will we get them? Will people actually wear these devices? Well, yes, if the right business proposition comes up.

For example, if I were CNN, I might give cameras away, built into glasses, hats, jackets, pens. Each camera would have its own Web page. It would store the last half hour of video. And it would wake up every minute or so, and post its GPS location to the web page.

As soon as word came in of something newsworthy, CNN would turn on all the wearable webcams in reach of the event. And you might, as the wearer, get royalties on any footage. Or, if you were the late victim, your estate might get it. Or maybe, you’d just have a free camera for your own use, until the day came when your eyes became the eyes of the world?

Given a small enough, light enough, and big-enough memory camera, everything can be recorded. Would it be by CNN? or by Group 4 Security? or by Big Brother? The technology doesn’t care; but the technology is nearly ready. I wonder if we are?

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