Microsoft’s Kin Phones Resurrect the Lifelogging Debate

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the lifelogging technologies—as part of his ongoing My Life Bits project, he wears a prototype “SenseCam” that snaps a digital photo every few minutes.

But there’s one place for such recording hardware that Bell and his co-author didn’t include in their list: the pocket, purse, or holster where you keep your mobile phone. Judging from developments like Kin Studio, ordinary cell phones, not lapel-pin spycams, will be the wedge devices that provide millions of people with their first experience of lifelogging.

While the Kin system is currently the coolest example of automatic cloud-based sharing and storage, it’s far from the only one. Nokia introduced a mobile-fueled multimedia diary tool called Lifeblog way back in 2004, for example (it’s since been supplanted by a more prosaic “Nokia Photos” service), and Apple’s MobileMe subscription service provides automatic wireless synchronization of appointments and contact lists across multiple Apple devices (iPhones, iPads, MacBooks) as well as cloud-based storage for photos and other data.

But how many people really need or want to be lifeloggers? Apart from the obvious privacy and security issues that arise in a world where Facebook and Google and Microsoft store so much of our personal data, how much of information that we’re stockpiling does anyone else care about—and how much of it will we really need it later?

There’s a fascinating article in the May issue of Communications of the ACM (that’s the Association for Computing Machinery, for all you non-geeks) that pretty much tears apart Bell’s lifelogging concept, accusing him and other proponents of the “e-memory revolution” of charging ahead on the technology of digital archiving without stopping to ask what practical purpose a comprehensive lifelog might serve. More than that, the authors believe that lifelogging researchers naively confuse “e-memories” with real human memories, and ignore decades of psychology research on how organic memories are generated and retrieved.

What makes the article doubly interesting is that one of the co-authors, Abigail Sellen, is Bell’s colleague at Microsoft Research. (Though she’s part of the Cambridge, UK, branch, while Bell is in San Francisco.)

Kin Studio interfaceSellen and co-author Steve Whittaker, of IBM’s Almaden Research Center in San Jose, CA, acknowledge that lifelogging systems might have any number of uses. They divide these up into “the five Rs,” or recollecting (help reliving specific life experiences for pratical purposes such as locating a lost object), reminiscing (accessing the emotional or sentimental content of a historical experience), retrieving (finding specific documents or records), reflecting (examining patterns in experience and reframing the past), and remembering intentions (simply put, keeping a to-do list of prospective events).

All of these are important forms of recall. Unfortunately, according to Sellen and Whittaker, there is little evidence that lifelogging systems help with any of them. Bell writes in Total Recall that he felt compelled to hoard and eventually digitize huge stacks of old paper files “because I knew that someday, for some reason, I would need to refind at least one old item.” In Bell’s world, only a “total capture” approach can prevent the loss of potentially needful data. But Sellen and Whittaker cite … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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One response to “Microsoft’s Kin Phones Resurrect the Lifelogging Debate”

  1. Fiona says:

    People won’t be uploading everything any time soon.

    The fact Kin uploads every photo taken on it will be the whole platform’s demise. Uploading everything causes Kin to have huge data usage, causes the networks to put up data prices for Kins, thus causing the monthly fees for Kin to be much higher than many other phones. People will not want to pay this much for a Microsoft Kin.

    Apart from this, the Kin phone is really lacking functionality. You are not permitted to install any apps yourself. Message updates are on a 15-minute delay before you can read them. Kin can’t IM. It can’t upload images to Twitter. It has no calendar. It only syncs contacts that are from a Microsoft service (won’t do it with Google or other services).

    When you check the detail of Kin, you realize it is very lacking, and won’t do very much. Just about any other phone would be better.