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Are wearable cameras the next big thing in tech?

There’s an old saying in Silicon Valley: “Being early is the same as being wrong”.

Japanese electronics maker Konica Minolta employee displays a prototype model of a smart glass "Wearable Communicator" at the Combined Exhibition of Advanced Technologies electronics trade show in Chiba, suburban Tokyo on Oct 7, 2014.

Japanese electronics maker Konica Minolta employee displays a prototype model of a smart glass "Wearable Communicator" at the Combined Exhibition of Advanced Technologies electronics trade show in Chiba, suburban Tokyo on Oct 7, 2014.

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There’s an old saying in Silicon Valley: “Being early is the same as being wrong”.

The first electric cars existed more than a century before Tesla. The PalmPilot might have been the iPhone, but the screen technology wasn’t ready.

Webvan was a grocery delivery service that resembled today’s Instacart, Ocado and Getir, yet became a dotcom-bubble flame-out.

And Facebook had several forerunners, including Friends Reunited and SixDegrees. But they launched before there were enough people with digital cameras, broadband connections or the appetite to put their lives online.

Having a great idea is one thing. Picking the right moment to launch it is another.

I was mulling this over as I read about one of the most ambitious new tech ideas I’ve heard about in years.

Humane, a San Francisco start-up founded a few years ago by former Apple designers and engineers, and backed by an impressive set of investors, is hoping to render their former employer’s flagship product obsolete.

Instead of us hunching over iPhones, Humane wants us to be heads up, in the moment, freed from our ever-present screens.

Humane has not yet publicly discussed its first product, but a patent granted to the company earlier this year gives some clues.

It describes a concept for a “wearable multimedia device and cloud computing platform”, including a camera controlled by a virtual assistant.

Imagine if Alexa had eyes and Siri could see what you see.

Humane envisages a camera that can clip on to a shirt, a little like the one depicted in the 2013 movie Her.

This smart device, enabled with 5G and Bluetooth connections and using artificial intelligence in its software, will “capture almost everything that the user is currently seeing”, as the patent puts it, and send the best bits — such as a child blowing out birthday cake candles — to the cloud.

Or the wearer could point to something, ask, “What’s that?” and the assistant will whisper the answer into their headphones.

Of course, like any patent, this might all remain a concept.

When I enquired, a Humane spokesperson said that the company has “many ideas” and files patents to protect them: “Some of those ideas may become products, others may not.”

But its co-founder Imran Chaudhri already has hundreds of patents to his name, many related to his foundational design work on the iPhone, including its grid of app icons, touchscreen interactions such as pinch-to-zoom and the “do not disturb” function.

His co-founder (and wife) Bethany Bongiorno was a director of software engineering at Apple, spending eight years on project management for iOS.

The pair have recruited many former Apple colleagues.

So the Humane team has form in turning ideas into reality.

Many of the necessary technological ingredients are available, such as on-device AI processing (both more private and more efficient than constantly streaming data to the cloud) and low-powered wireless chips, which extend battery life.

But as previous attempts to create a wearable camera have shown, tech alone can’t answer the perennial question of whether the timing is right.

Immaturity of battery or camera technology certainly undermined devices like Google Glass and Snapchat’s Spectacles, both of which failed to take off.

But so too did privacy concerns — such as whether people not wearing a camera were happy to have one pointed at them from a stranger’s face.

The device that Humane’s concept reminds me of most is the Narrative Clip, which I tested back in 2014.

This crowd-funded button camera took pictures every 30 seconds, all day long.

Instead of images being sent wirelessly to the cloud, the device had to be plugged into a PC to download the pictures, and the low-res photos it produced were rarely worth the hassle.

Like Google Glass, Narrative failed to resolve the awkwardness I felt when wearing an almost-invisible camera, snapping people around me who had little or no idea I was doing so.

Another challenge was its subject matter: My daily life.

I soon realised that not much of what I was doing was worth recording, let alone showing to anyone else.

Perhaps a sprinkling of AI smarts will change that for Humane and finally make a wearable camera useful.

Or maybe adding image recognition technology will make ethical controversies surrounding surveillance even more acute.

Given their backgrounds — in recent years, Apple has made privacy a signature issue — the Humane team are no doubt sensitive to such questions.

Again and again, Silicon Valley has tried to convince us to wear cameras.

When every attempt failed to take off, it was deemed “too early”, though in truth there were many reasons.

Getting the timing right is one thing, but so too is being able to tell the difference between an idea that is ahead of its time and one that’s just plain wrong. FINANCIAL TIMES

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Tim Bradshaw is Financial Times’ global technology correspondent.

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Technology camera artificial intellignce privacy

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