WORLDBEAT - Microsoft's SenseCam keeps memories in mind

Digital camera developed by Microsoft helping people with memory problems

A digital camera developed by Microsoft is undergoing testing, but you won't see it in any stores soon.

Over the past several years at its research facility in Cambridge, England, the company created a wearable digital camera called the SenseCam. The camera's software is designed to take a low-resolution photo every 30 seconds while dangling from its wearer.

The SenseCam has received increasing attention in the medical field as an experimental tool to help those with memory problems, such as Alzheimer's disease. In 2005 the first trials began, and over time, the SenseCam has been used to help those with more severe memory problems, said Emma Berry, a neuropsychologist at Addenbrooke's Hospital in Cambridge.

Berry has been working recently with a 68-year-old Cambridge woman, "Mrs. F," who was diagnosed 12 years ago with severe memory impairment. For example, if Mrs. F goes to an art exhibit in the morning, she will not remember the activity the next day, Berry said.

Mrs F. wears the SenseCam on a lanyard around her neck when she and Berry do an activity. The SenseCam will take hundreds of images with its fish-eye lens, which provides a wide-angle view. Then, every two days for two weeks, Mrs. F reviews the images.

"At the end of the two weeks, she has a fantastic recollection of the event," Berry said. "What seems to happen is that when she looks at the images, some images don't bring to mind the events at all, but one or two of the images or maybe 10 of the images will bring it all back to her."

A key factor seems to be the quantity of images, since different images and scenes are more significant for some people than others, Berry said. For one person, the color of another person's shoes captured in an image may be enough to trigger wider recollections, she said.

SenseCam can take plenty of images. It has a 1 G-byte SD memory card and can shoot as many as 30,000 640-by-480 pixel images at Video Graphics Array quality. That spec isn't very impressive compared to today's digital cameras, but it's enough to be useful to jog memory, said Steve Hodges, who manages the SenseCam project at Microsoft Research in Cambridge.

"It's remarkable how it appears to trigger your memory for that event," Hodges said. "It seems to bring you back to that original moment."

SenseCam holds advantages over video recorders, Hodges said. The device is less intrusive for the user to wear, and the snapshots can be viewed at a faster pace later, allowing a person to get to the significant images rather than watching a video clip in real time. SenseCam's battery will last more than a day, and its user must download the images every couple of days.

SenseCam's image-viewing software is easy enough for elderly people to manage and designed to display images in a flip-book fashion, Hodges said. Similar to other photo-viewing software, a person can choose how quickly they want to play back the photos, he said.

The device has other features tailored to its purpose. It will interrupt its 30-second intervals to take a photo when it senses a sudden change in lighting or heat. It's equipped with a passive infrared sensor that can detect when another person is close and can take a photo.

So far, Microsoft isn't working on advancing the hardware specifications and instead is concentrating on engaging the medical community, Hodges said. Microsoft has no plans to commercialize SenseCam, but it has provided US$550,000 in funding for medical research projects using it.

Researchers are still a long way from understanding how memory works. Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, and the University of Leeds in England have a research project underway using the SenseCam to study autobiographical memory, or how people remember events over their lifetime.

"The jury is out over what part of our brains are involved in autobiographical memory," Berry said.

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