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Smile, you’re always on camera! Now how did we get here?

a history of wearable cameras from gopro to google glass brian heater 101314
Image used with permission by copyright holder
Nearly every dystopian story worth a damn, from 1984 to Brave New World, envisions a version of the future in which its populace is subject to constant surveillance. There are cameras everywhere, monitoring silently, collecting information. Usually, it’s a totalitarian government, corporation, or other Big Brother figure that does the peeping. What many futurists failed to predict, however, is that we were destined to become equal offenders.

Ask yourself — when was the last time you left your home without some sort of camera on your person? From exposing police brutality to filtering every sunset lo-fi through Instagram, the near ubiquity of tiny cameras is changing the way we see the world. And it’s been a long time coming.

When was the last time you left your home without some sort of camera on your person?

The history of wearable cameras stretches back even further than the tiny, shady devices you could find in your friendly neighborhood spy shop for years. Cameras played a big role in the early work of the godfather of wearable computing, Steve Mann, as far back as the early 1980s. The MIT inventor’s Digital Eye project incorporates a camera in one of its lenses to digitize real-world objects in order to create an augmented reality interface.

Not surprisingly, cameras also play a major role in Google Glass, considered by many a spiritual successor to Mann’s pioneering work in wearable computing. In the early version of Google’s much-discussed headmounted display, the camera is more of a secondary feature, allowing users to take images, record videos and teleconference.

A decade or so ago, cameras became so cheap that we got into the habit of adding them to every piece of consumer electronics, whether it made any particular sense or not. It follows, then, that they would make their way onto our wearables. Heck, we’ve even seen smartwatches with awkwardly placed cameras that seem to exist for the sake of adding another feature to the spec sheet.

The true breakthrough in wearable camera technology occurred in 2006, with the introduction of the first digital GoPro Hero camera. A previous version of the action camera actually utilized 35mm film, but the product was born of the same initial impulse: to give athletes — surfers, in the case of the camera’s inventor — the ability to capture their own footage, since photographers and videographers are rarely afforded the ability to get that close to the action.

Steve Mann, Digital Eye project
Steve Mann, Digital Eye project Image used with permission by copyright holder

For the GoPro, that meant making a device that was small, rugged and capable of being attached to vehicles and people. Naturally, the GoPro captured more than just extreme sport footage — it capture the public’s imagination. Manufacturers were quick to jump on board, which most major electronics companies offering some take on the action camera space, including, most recently, HTC’s delightful periscope-shaped Re camera.

GoPro afforded the opportunity to capture footage new and fascinating ways. It also presented a sort of versatility that has continued to bring out the creativity go its users, attaching the camera to everything from pets to musical instruments.

But arguably the camera’s strongest point was its embrace of the first-person viewpoint, through mounts made for the body. In a selfie-obsessed culture, giving others the opportunity to see things from your point of view is arguably the strongest form of technological self-expression. Point the camera on yourself is all well and good, but what if it was possible to give the world an idea of what’s like being you, while you go about your extreme sport-centric lifestyle?

More importantly, who wouldn’t want to experience that sort of adrenaline rush from the remote comfort of their laptop screen?

(Image courtesy of GoPro) Image used with permission by copyright holder

The notion of lifelogging takes the next logical step. In a world of ubiquitous camera access, why limit our broadcasts to those somewhat rare occasions when we’re base jumping from an erupting volcano into a tank of great white sharks (Thursdays for me)? We’re all unique and fascinating individuals leading unique and fascinating lives. Why not just clip on a camera that never shuts off.

The concept of lifelogging dates back at least as far as the advent of wearable cameras. Mann donned a wearable Web cam and began streaming his life 24 hours a day in 1994, a full four years before The Truman Show opened the American public up to seemingly realistic possibility that we’re already on camera 24 hours a day, anyway. And hey, if the world is going to be watching what you’re doing at all times anyway, shouldn’t you at least have the opportunity to frame what it sees?

GoPro afforded the opportunity to capture footage new and fascinating ways.

Like Mann’s other innovations, it’s taken most of the rest of the world decades to catch on. In recent years, however, a perfect storm of technological innovation and the culture of self-obsession have made commercial lifelogging cameras a reality. I was pretty excited about checking out the Memoto when I first met with the company’s founders a few South by Southwests ago.

The device — since rebranded the Narrative Clip — is an SD card-sized (albeit a bit thicker) camera that clips onto your lapel. You wear it around and it takes pictures. And that’s about it. It simply takes pictures at regular intervals. It’s not intended to replace the camera on your phone. Heck, it’s not even intended to snap a photo of an amazing occurrence before you’re able to pull that phone out of your pocket.

As a sidenote, I reviewed the camera and wasn’t particularly impressed with what it could do. I’m also not entirely sure that lifelogging is a bandwagon I’m particularly interested in pursuing. Admit it: You’ve never been curious how many cups of green tea I consume while working on one of these things. Nor should you be.

Like the GoPro, before it, it will take some truly compelling footage to convince the world to shell out for wearable lifelogging cameras (particularly with the $230 Narrative is currently asking). When that arrives, however, you can bet a lot more people will be wearing cameras on their person.

But at least in this dystopian future, we’re able to control where some of them are pointed.

Brian Heater
Brian Heater has worked at number of tech pubs, including Engadget, PCMag and Laptop. His writing has appeared in Spin…
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