SMOKE: Microsoft's Black Box

Originally published: 1 April 2004

Although you would normally associate Microsoft with software and blue screens of death, they have an entire hardware research department as well, based in Cambridge in the UK.

A bunch of really lucky people work there, dreaming up ideas for nifty gadgets for the future, and some of the ideas they are coming up with are pretty cool.

One of their latest projects - still just a research prototype - is a gadget called the SenseCam, which is a wearable, badge-sized camera.

It captures up to 2,000 images a day which are stored in 128MB FLASH memory, and is essentially a black box for the human body which you wear around your neck.

The difference between the SenseCam and other portable miniature cameras is that you don't actually take the pictures yourself - the camera responds to a multitude of stimuli like movement, light and temperature, and keeps a photographic record of your day.

It can be 'rewound' to allow you to see where you left your keys, for example, or what that bottle of wine was that you had the other night.

It can be particularly useful to medical staff - if you have an accident, for example, the data will be recorded so that they can see exactly what happened and take the appropriate action.

If someone stabs you in the head - you've got him on camera, and in no time at all he'll find himself carving out a whole new meaningful relationship with Bubba.

How it works is thus (according to Microsoft's research website):

Sensors trigger a new recording. For example, each time the person walks into a new room, this light change is detected and the image is captured with an ultra wide angle or fish-eye lens. Other triggers include, time, sudden movement, or a person nearby. A hand gesture can also manually capture an image. An accelerometer is used for image stabilisation to reduce blurred images caused by camera motion.

Future versions of the SenseCam may include audio recording (useful for playing back a conversation you had with someone in which they promised you something they are refusing to deliver), and possibly even record physiological data like heart rate and skin temperature.

Eventually it could be linked to other technology like face recognition, allowing the wearer to tell whether they've seen someone before or not (very, very useful for a bloke like me, who cannot remember my own relatives, let alone someone important I supposedly met at a party), and it could even be linked to global positioning satellites, which can pinpoint exactly where any given picture was taken.

All of that is very pie in the sky at the moment, but people are actually being paid obscene amounts of money to develop the technology, and rightly so. The sooner the future comes to us the better.

Of course - this technology is custom made for the more devious and less desirable elements of society, and with the ever-increasing phenomenon of cellphone cameras and miniature camera technology the world is steadily becoming more and more Big Brother-like.

Combine all this with facial recognition technology, satellites that hover over us in ever-increasing numbers which are capable of taking a photograph of the time on your watch or your numberplate, and global suspicion brought on by terrorism - and you have to question just where it will all end.

That smacks of conspiracy theory and amateur paranoia, but it's not that far-fetched. The argument is that non-criminals have nothing to fear, but I don't agree - criminals are just as likely to purchase a SenseCam as good, law-abiding folk, and in the hands of criminals a mini-cam can be an immensely useful thing.

But I don't think we should hold back technology simply because we're paranoid about what might be done with it, or how it might be abused - the SenseCam could be a very useful tool, providing it manages to keep out all trojans and viruses and can avoid the blue screen of death. Not easy for a Microsoft product, I know, but there you have it.

Another prototype developed by the folks in Cambridge is a device called the XWpen, a pen which records your handwriting and transmits it via a radio signal to your PC or cellphone.

Inside the pen is a normal ink cartridge as well as a radio circuit board, and how it works is that you write normally on paper, and the movement made by the top of the pen (see diagram) is transmitted to a receiver on your computer, which interprets the movement and translates it into text.

That's pretty cool. Not particularly useful for criminals, it must be said, but cool nonetheless.

Another Microsoft development is technology which allows you to convert an image of your face into a low-resolution cartoon image, and turns it into an animation.

That animation can then be used with applications like instant messaging instead of the time-honoured smilies, conveying laughter, frowning, nodding, etc. so that the person you are chatting to can understand the intention with which you wrote something.

And of course - the face is yours.

Yet another piece of non-essential, mindless technology which won't do much for saving the planet or finding a cure for cancer, but which toy-loving folks can have a great time with. The more toys we have the better.

So it's nice to know that Uncle Bill is exploring cool and groovy ways of keeping us entertained, and all I hope is that these prototypes - as well as the thousands of other ideas which never make it to production or the store shelves - eventually find their way to me.

Let's play.

All Smoked Out,
Luke Tagg
Spending time online does bad things to a person, but I'm OK.

Look at me now - all the way from Uitenhage to the bright lights of the big internet.

Find out more using the handy links provided.

Copyright © Luke Tagg. All rights reserved. A few lefts as well.

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