How wearable cameras can help those with Alzheimer's 
[ 2014/08/11 ]
Some people hang out with their friends on yachts or play pool with pretty girls. Others like to go on treetop zip-wire adventures and holiday on wooded Thai islands. These examples of images on the websites of Autographer and Narrative Clip, two leading wearable cameras, reveal the kind of things their makers imagine we might do with their devices.

These gadgets automatically snap hundreds of photos per day from their user's perspective. The much-awaited Google Glass, expected to go on general sale within months, will be able to do the same thing. Some believe future historians will peg 2014 as the dawn of the "life-logging" era, in which many or even most of us will carry devices that record images or video of our daily lives.

Beyond the huge privacy implications, the big question is: can this technology improve our lives? For the current market leaders, it is about providing tech-savvy twenty- and thirtysomethings with a way to generate automatically digital photo albums of unprecedented detail and supercharging their social media-sharing capabilities. Some "self-quantifiers" are already using continuous image-gathering as part of personal improvement projects such as losing weight or boosting their productivity.

But such applications are far removed from those envisaged by the technology's early developers, who set out to create visual aids for people with failing memories. And those pioneers may yet be vindicated. Early research suggests that these devices can not only help those with amnesia and dementia recall important events, but may also be able to improve their memory abilities.

One of those innovators was Lyndsay Williams, who probably has the best claim to have been the first to come up with a device capable of taking large numbers of still images automatically. In 1999, shortly after having joined Microsoft Research Cambridge, she attached a digital camera linked to an accelerometer to her bicycle's basket. Her "SenseCam" was designed to take pictures when she was forced to brake hard, in order to capture the details of careless drivers. Williams had temporarily lost six months of memories as a result of being the victim of a hit-and-run road accident aged 17, and she hoped her invention could help others in the same boat. "After that bang on the head I couldn't remember whether I'd been to a concert I had a ticket for or whether I'd done my exams, so I was keenly aware of the frustration of memory difficulties," says Williams, now an independent design consultant. "I also wanted to help a friend who was always losing their keys and their spectacles."

In March 2004, Microsoft filed a patent application for a "recall device" that could help "a victim of Alzheimer's disease and his/her care-giver to reconstruct a portion of the individual's daily activity". Researchers at Addenbrooke's hospital's memory clinic began a collaboration with nearby Microsoft Research in Cambridge to investigate the technology's potential for its patients.

In a case study published in 2007, they revealed that a 63-year-old librarian known as Mrs B, who had amnesia caused by a brain infection, could recall more than 80% of key facts about significant events after a fortnight of reviewing SenseCam images every couple of days and that a similar level of recall persisted for months after she stopped looking at the pictures. This compared with being able to recall just under half of the details using a written diary and no recall at all without either intervention after five days.

Two years later, they published a study in which Mrs B showed increased activity in the parts of the brain linked to experiences associated with time and place, known as episodic memories. They concluded that the device could provide cues that help bring back stored but inaccessible memories, including thoughts, feelings and occurrences not in the images themselves.

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