The automatic self(ie) and the making of memories.

A '19 Moments' Story

’19 Moments’ – a Google Story, to be included in a future post.

All the features in the recent post (about the application of algorithms to popular online photo sites) have the potential to be ingredients in a story, so what algorithmic tricks might be available to spin your photos, your ‘moments’, into a yarn, automatically? For a start Google Stories can take the effort out of selecting and sequencing your holiday photos, locating them as ‘moments’ on a ‘fun timeline’ with a location …

Lily Hay Newman explains more about “Stories” on Slate.

“The goal of Stories is to convert your trove of photos into an attractive slideshow/scrapbook-type thing that’s shareable…If you have auto backup enabled in the Google Plus app on your iOS or Android phone, the Stories algorithms will automatically look through your photos, evaluate time stamps, and geo-tag data in your images to figure out whether you’ve been traveling and then whether you took enough photos/videos to merit a Story. The service also scans to see if any of your photos include recognizable landmarks.

If there’s enough data there, a chronological Story will automatically generate. It will choose photos and landmarks to highlight, but you can go in and customize which photos show up and which location data displays from the … places you visited. You can also add captions.”

There’s more from this article below questioning Google’s motives and whether Stories is a ‘feature in Search of a Purpose’; meanwhile, here’s one I didn’t make earlier, Google did it all, except for the title and captions – as the author you’re helpfully prompted here and there to ‘add a narrative’ – I guess a caption can just squeeze in as a narrative.

But (returning to the query in the previous post) what criteria were used to select the photos? In the example above not all the photos I took on that journey are included (though I could rearrange and add some manually), so do the ‘bots’ go through the ‘Highlights’ process first then average out the number of photos over the length of journey or time? It seems less mechanical than that though as there are clusters of images where I’d taken more in one location than another.

I also just discovered, and seem to have inadvertently participated in, Google Views. It’s a timeline short of a story but is place and image related – “a community where you can share public photos that help other people on Google Maps explore the world and decide where they want to go”

Google-Maps-ViewUnsurprisingly, Facebook  is soon to follow in Google’s Story footsteps with Trip slideshow Stories – looking very like Google Stories but not yet widely available according to this article from 27th September on Android Police.

Creating stories from your journeys to share with family and friends does have a strong appeal for many people including myself, but there seem to be an increasing number of people who are taking themselves and their life stories very seriously (maybe obsessively) and are part of a movement known as the Quantified Self. From an article entitled ‘Living the dull life a second at a time’ the (wonderfully named) Hiawatha Bray, a self-confessed QS groupie at the Boston Globe writes

“The true believers among them think we’re the first generation of humans truly capable of knowing ourselves — not through prayer and meditation, but from the unrelenting accumulation of data. The most passionate “lifeloggers” record every aspect of their existence — not just phone calls and e-mails, but heart rate and blood pressure. And of course, digital photos of every place and person along the way. It might seem like distilled narcissism, but it’s easier than keeping a diary. It can steer people into a healthier lifestyle, help them manage their time, and preserve their best memories.”

To fuel this compulsion you can get wearable cameras – one, the  Autographer,

“has been custom built to enable spontaneous, hands-free image capture. Its world leading technology includes a custom 136° eye view lens, an ultra small GPS unit and 5 in-built sensors. These sensors are fused by a sophisticated algorithm to tell the camera exactly the right moments to take photos”

One blogger’s response to this on Momfluential was that

“The age of instagram selfies has given us a warped vision of our lives and this feels so refreshingly REAL”

Autographer software allows you to edit your photos and make giffs and videos but you can just use a phone to do something similar if you download the Saga app which their website tells us

“automatically records your real life story, as told by the places you visited and the things you’ve done. We all have a great story to tell. Let Saga tell yours. Capture every moment, even the little ones, in your lifelog. Learn about your habits and set meaningful goals with the insight you gain.”

Or you can go for the Narrative Clip Camera (formerly Memoto). You wear this too but according to Hiawatha Bray, it’s lacking the sensors and ‘sophisticated algorithms’ of the Autographer (a UK product, which in his opinion takes better photographs), and just automatically takes a photo every 30 seconds. The battery will last 2 days and it has a storage capacity of 6000, 5MB images … whatever will you do with this visual excess? Well fortunately, according to the Narrative website, the software

“applies innovative intelligence to identify meaningful moments from thousands of pieces of visual data recorded daily. To take a single thread – like a photo diary – and weave it into a personal narrative requires the right kind of glue: context […]There’s more about location data than GPS coordinates, and understanding not only where you are but also the kind of place it is – and how often you visit places like this – provides one piece of the puzzle. Other clues come from sensors in your smartphone or on your body, such as a BodyMedia armband.

We can understand your routine and notice when you break out of your routine. We bring in third party data to add external conditions like hyper-local weather and traffic. When you combine all of these inputs you begin to get a sense of context. Not only can you remember the name of that café on the Boulevard Saint Germaine, but you can remember your mood, how far you walked to get there, the moment it started raining, the book you were reading, how long you stayed, the bridge you stopped on after you left, all without writing anything in your Moleskine.”

Well, what a relief that must be.

Narrative also offers additional (paid for) software that allows users to

“upload their pictures to an online service where computers analyze each photo. Too dark or blurry images are discarded, and the rest are edited into a slideshow for viewing on any Apple or Android phone or tablet. It worked pretty well at singling out the occasional interesting moment. The company’s working on a way to let users export the slideshows as video, to share with friends.” Hiawatha Bray at the Boston Globe again.

Perhaps the ultimate goal of the Quantified Self is to become an Explorer with Google Glass  – ‘wearable technology with an optical head-mounted display that displays information in a smartphone-like hands-free format. Wearers communicate with the Internet via natural language voice commands’ Wikipedia

“Live Lighter – never miss a moment…Take a photo, record your run, send a message, take a note, find your way, read a list, listen to music, share your operations live with other surgeons…” From Google Glass site

“Glass is about the journey. It’s about figuring out what to do with this tiny screen and camera on your face.” From Android Central

But there’s future competition on the horizon from Sony with Smart EyeGlass (discussed here on C|net), and while there are emerging things like Android Wear and Apple Watch that will record your personal data like heart rate, run times, where you are etc, they’re not yet in the business of automatically photographing your every move. So from my personal skim across these developments, Google with its Glass, Map View, and Stories feel like they have the most ubiquitous presence – for a good reason; from Slate again

“Google is in the business of data collection. The more information Google has on you, the more money they can make from you […] Google has been trying to drum up ways to gain subscribers to their free Google Plus service, to take over the number one spot from Facebook. Now they are playing to their strengths, which is how well they know people. Google has much more knowledge on you and your behavior than you will ever know.”

“It seems almost like a distraction from or a justification for all the data Google collects about its users. The more personal data Google has, the more ads it can sell and the more money it can make. If something like Stories will get people to automatically upload even more photos, then it’s a win for Google. The link to your Story is just a little thank-you from Google for providing your valuable data.”

There’s more on the Google dominance topic in this Guardian article by Oliver Burkeman from September

“It’s been clear for some time that Google sees nothing as being beyond its domain,” says Siva Vaidhyanathan, a cultural historian at the University of Virginia and author of the 2011 book The Googlization of Everything. “Everything is subject to being organised or distilled or analysed, assessed and presented by Google’s algorithms. It became the operating system of the web, then of our mobile devices; now it would like to be the operating system of your eyeglasses and your automobile. It has a prediction it wants to fulfil: that data will flow through everything, your refrigerator, your clothing, every aspect of human interaction. And if everything’s quantifiable and traceable, Google wants to be the company that monetises that. It’s an immodest vision – but nobody ever accused Google of modesty.”

Google and their fellow empire builders are well aware of our insatiable appetite for story and are mining our personal data resources in fine colonial style, while the Quantified Self provides an unlimited capacity for exploiting our yearning for gadgets. But what is it about this addiction to ‘story’, why do we need it and why, laced into this do we seem to enjoy taking and sharing so many photographs of our lives? Well it’s a huge topic but a fascinating glimpse into the possible reason comes through, amongst other things, current research into Alzheimer’s disease.

It’s suggested that most humans automatically capture moments of experience visually, store them in different parts of the brain and put them together to create memories (I’m interested to learn how the congenitally blind person’s brain does this). When some people with Alzheimer’s use wearable cameras (eg the Autographer) for a while and look at the results it’s thought that

“viewing the images in sequence triggers activity in the same brain circuits that were triggered when you first experienced the events and that by doing so repeatedly you can prod the memory into consciousness” Dr Catherine Loveday, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Westminster quoted in an article in The Guardian, 9 August 2014.

So rather than simply being a willful obsession, or infinite solipsism as I’d glibly assumed, subscribing to this automated photo-story-making may just be an external echo of what’s already going on in our heads… and we’ve now reached a stage where technology can begin to approximate this process.

Finally (a little ‘off-story’ as this outcome isn’t automatically generated but does rely on algorithms and is about memory and personal stories!) some ‘Touchable Memories’ have been produced by Singapore based Pirate 3D. Working in conjunction with other companies, they’ve done a ‘social experiment’ with a handful of people who are all blind to some degree and over varying durations. The end result for each person is a 3D printed model from a photograph in their possession that they can no longer see, or in some cases have never been able to see, of a particular occasion from their past, or of family members, or in one case a piece of 2D artwork. The films on the website are interviews with the participants and show the impact on each person of this satisfying application of technology. If you’ve got access to a 3D printer, Instructables show how (including code) you can make your own prints from photographs.