TechMan: Want a record of your whole brilliant life?

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Ever think what it would be like to have a record of your entire life -- everything you wrote, watched, heard, e-mailed, spoke?

It sounds daunting and maybe a little absurd, but Gordon Bell and Jim Gemmell at Microsoft are working on it. Their MyLifeBits project is composed of two parts: software to retrieve captured materials and an effort to completely document the life of Mr. Bell.

TechMan heard Mr. Bell speak about the project at the opening of the Seagate Research Center in the Strip District. The research center is gone, but the idea lives on. Mr. Bell and Mr. Gemmell have written a book about the project called "Total Recall."

Before coming to Microsoft in 1995, Mr. Bell already had a distinguished career that included teaching computer science at Carnegie Mellon University and helping to design the PDP and VAX line of computers for the Digital Equipment Corp. He also co-founded the Computer History Museum.

He freely admits that he stands on the shoulders of Vannevar Bush with this idea. Mr. Bush was in effect the first presidential science adviser. In 1945, he wrote an article in the Atlantic Monthly magazine proposing a machine called a memex that could record knowledge and allow its retrieval. The idea foreshadowed the World Wide Web.

To build a modern-day memex, you need devices to record the information. For information in digital form -- which is increasingly all information -- the hardware is out there. For recording things in the analog world, scanning technology has advanced to allow fast input of written and printed materials.

But how do we record things we see and hear each day? Microsoft has developed the SenseCam, a device containing a camera and embedded sensors worn around a user's neck that automatically takes a series of thousands of still images and records ambient light levels, temperature and movement.

Researchers at CMU have used the SenseCam to allow elderly people to review their experiences during the day as a way of aiding short-term memory.

Once we capture this huge amount of data, how do we store it? Advances in hard drive capacity are the answer. A 1 terabyte (1,000 gigabytes) hard drive now starts at about $75, and drives are getting bigger and cheaper every day.

What can 1 terabyte store?

Everything you read in your lifetime stored as text would not be more than a few GB. One hundred-thousand photos in JPEG format would use 10 GB. A quarter-million faxes would be another gigabyte. Several hundred CDs in MP3 format adds 20 GB, and 250 hours of HDTV would use nearly 400 GB, about half your hard drive. Storage has become incredibly cheap.

Software issues mostly involve how to find a specific item after it's been stored. With text we have pretty much solved the problem, but audio and video are another question.

Mr. Gemmell and Roger Lueder have written database software that makes annotation easy, adding a text "note" to files, even by voice, so they can be found. Advances in facial recognition and video and audio search soon will make it easier to find any kind of material.

As software and hardware evolve to automate the process of capturing and storing life's material, the day could come when you arrive home at the end of a long day and dump out all your digitally stored experiences, sort of like emptying your pockets on the bedside table.

Meanwhile, Mr. Bell has been capturing a lifetime's worth of articles, books, CDs, letters, memos, papers, photos, pictures, presentations, home movies, videotaped lectures and voice recordings. He is beginning to capture phone calls, instant messages, television and radio.

In the future, you might have a digital life that you can look back on -- and the advantages of that could turn out to be surprising. At least when you couldn't remember what you had for lunch yesterday, you could look it up.


Read TechMan's blog at post-gazette.com/techman . The TechTalk video podcast is at post-gazette.com/multimedia and the audio version at post-gazette.com/podcast . Follow pgtechman on twitter and techmanpg on buzz.


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