In the old days -- say, 150 years ago -- a photograph was a rare and expensive thing.
Photos back then took a long time to prepare for, and a long time afterwards to process. Only professionals could create them. Once you had a photograph in your possession, you cared for it and treated it like a precious object.
Over the ensuing decades, improved technology made photos increasingly common, cheap and disposable. And, in fact, the pace of that trend has never stopped accelerating. Soon, we will reach a kind of singularity where pictures are as easy and cheap to take as they are not to take, and they will be infinitely disposable.
When that happens, the default mode for most cameras will be to never stop taking pictures.
To paraphrase cyberpunk author William Gibson, the future of constantly capturing cameras is already here; it's just not widely distributed yet.
What's so great about a camera that never stops taking photos? Constant picture taking has one advantage, and one disadvantage.
The advantage is that by taking many more pictures, you're more likely to capture unexpected or better images. Professional photographers take a lot more pictures than amateurs, because they know that taking 500 pictures of something instead of just five increases the chance of getting at least one great picture.
This "pro tip" is even more advantageous for bad photographers like me. That's why my last camera purchase was a Canon EOS 7D, which takes 8 frames per second, and can take 130 pictures in a row at the highest jpeg setting at that speed.
It's amazing how much better a photographer I am when the photo I show you was the best of 100 pictures, rather than the best of three. (The reason security cameras in, say, retail stores, never stop taking pictures is that they want to capture unexpected moments.)
In both cases, constant picture taking prevents you from missing the very best image.
The one disadvantage is that all those pictures have to be managed and dealt with. And being able to manage massively high numbers of photos is where technology is lagging.
But smart people are working on it, and they're making progress. Here are some camera products and projects that constantly capture images.
A company called Oxford Metrics Group (OMG!) plans to ship a $650 camera next month called Autographer.
The camera is designed to be worn around the neck, and make its own decisions about when to snap photos. It uses acceleration, direction, temperature, proximity and light sensors to make those decisions. So, for example, when you're just sitting there, and the scenery isn't changing, it stops taking pictures. If you get up and walk around, it starts again.
The camera has a near-fisheye lens (136-degrees), so it captures a lot of visual information without aiming or pointing.
A recent statement by the company captures the idea of the constant camera perfectly: "Autographer is designed to change the way we think about photography: one where moments are captured without intervention."
A similar product called Memoto is in the works, and is being crowd-funded on Kickstarter.
The Memoto camera is a tiny, weather-resistant clip-on device that snaps a picture every 30 seconds. It also captures GPS location.
The camera doesn't even have a button. When you connect the device to a PC, it simultaneously charges the camera (it lasts two days on a charge), and the pictures are uploaded to Memoto's cloud service.
You then use a smartphone app to browse through the pictures, a task made easier by software-based auto-categorization (based on location, time and light). Or you can search, based on location, date or other information.
The purpose for this camera isn't photography, but prosthetic memory -- it gives you a literally photographic memory. (Their slogan is: "Remember every moment.")
The camera is low-quality, and the picture taking is low-frequency. But you can imagine this evolving into high-resolution photos taken, say, every second.
You just wear it and ignore it. But when you see Bigfoot, or witness a crime or when you run into Bill Murray on the street, you'll have pictures of everything.
A tiny video camera called the Looxcie HD looks at first like your standard extreme sports helmet cam. But in addition to doing neat tricks like streaming live video to Facebook and other services, the Looxcie HD does something truly amazing.
You can press a button, and it records constantly for up to five hours. It erases the video it captures almost as fast as it records it. However, if something happens that you wanted to record, just press another button, and the recent video is saved and uploaded to the cloud.
So the default in this mode is to constantly record and erase. It ends up being a video camera not for shooting video in the present, but in the past.
DriveMate Rec and DailyRoads Voyager
The Looxcie HD camera borrows the record-and-purge concept from consumer dashcams -- special cameras designed to record video from inside a car constantly, and delete it constantly unless the user pushes a button that saves recent video.
Dashcams have been around for years, and are very popular in some parts of the world, such as Russia. In fact, some of the craziest videos you can find on YouTube were taken from dashcams.
Anyway, you should know that you can convert your smart phone into a dashcam using an app.
The DriveMate Rec app for iOS and DailyRoads Voyager app for Android constantly record and delete video. The idea is that you mount your phone on the dash, and keep the app running. If you get into an accident, or you see something you want to remember, just press a button and recent video is captured and saved.
One of my favorite tricks for taking pictures with my iPhone is that I use a camera app called TimeLapse. It's designed to create stop-motion videos. But I use it as a camera that takes a huge number of pictures automatically so I can choose the best one.
In the settings, I tell the app to take a picture every second, and stop after 300 photos. I set it for "No Video," and to "Store Photos" in my iPhone's Camera Roll. Those are the settings that convert the app into a camera that just keeps taking pictures.
If I'm going to take a group shot, a posed shot or a timed shot -- instead of trying to capture that one moment when nobody blinks -- I use TimeLapse. I just have the app take a picture every second. Everybody poses, and I end up with a few dozen pictures to choose from.
After all, why take one picture when you can take many?
The future of constant-capture cameras
These products represent the early days for cameras that keep capturing by default.
Moore's Law and other advancements will continue until all our cameras capture constantly. The biggest advancements will be near-infinite storage and very fast wireless cloud uploading, as well as great new methods for quickly scrolling through pictures or video to pick the ones you want to save.
Instead of "taking" a picture, you'll instead just pick one from the gazillion pictures already taken.
Wearable computers like Google's Project Glass will create new opportunities for photographic memory, as you'll be able to simply "rewind" your own life at any time and catch the instant replay.
Cameras that take "still" photographs will become obsolete. They'll all take video and, like the 4K Red camera, ordinary consumer cameras will take video in which each frame is a high-resolution still image for the taking. Instead of trying to "snap" the photo at the perfect moment, you'll record video and pick the right moment later.
So get ready for a future in which cameras never stop taking pictures and video. And smile: because you're on constant camera.
Mike Elgan writes about technology and tech culture. Contact and learn more about Mike at Elgan.com, or subscribe to his free e-mail newsletter, Mike's List. You can also see more articles by Mike Elgan on Computerworld.com.
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