Wearable Diaries Project

Project in a Nutshell
I’m working to produce a series of multimedia diaries that take advantage of wearable technology. The core of the project is the creation of an app for Google Glass that automatically interviews the wearer throughout the day by displaying questions and recording the answers. The app will also occasionally grab video footage as b-roll. The idea is that these video profiles will provide a unique view into people’s lives by capturing moments that might not be otherwise documented and present stories through a person’s eyes.

Progress so Far
I teamed up with Scott Greenwald, a doctoral student here at the Media Lab, and we (mostly Scott) built a prototype app that recorded 10 seconds of video every few minutes (I experimented with different intervals — usually setting it for between 5 and 10 minutes). He coded the app in Wearscript, a system designed by Greenwald and some colleagues to make it easy to quickly prototype Glass apps. The result was buggy, but it let us test the concept.

Primavera’s Biohack Project
Using the app, Primavera wore Glass during three different days as she worked on an art project she is doing called Tree of Knowledge, which involves bioluminescent algae. The idea was to document the project and her vision of it using the POV perspective. Here’s the edited version, with a voice-over interview we recorded later:


I think this video was somewhat successful, but the biggest problem was we missed key moments of action. After running tests using this storytelling approach with the initial app, we learned that taking video every few minutes is too random, and we believed we could find a better way to decide when to turn on recording. I proposed linking the app to the wearer’s Google Calendar. Then we could try to set the app to prompt users with questions a few minutes before each calendar event (while they were likely on their way) and in the middle of events to hopefully get a representative sample of daily activities. Not everyone uses Google Calendar, of course, but the idea would be that I would sit down with the subject the day before they were going to record and help them fill in a Google Calendar with what they expected to do on the day of recording — that way we’re using Google Calendar to custom-program the Wearable Diaries app for each story subject.

We didn’t have time to actually build the prototype app that used this approach. Instead, I simulated it by just asking a fellow student (thanks Leslie!) to manually record moments throughout her day using this rough approach. I also texted her a few questions and reminders throughout the day (using a cell phone rather than Glass itself) to try some prompts that we might program into the app when we do build it.

Leslie’s Wearable Diary
Leslie wore Glass for a day and recorded about 75 short clips (most of them 10 seconds each but some of them longer), for a total of about 17 minutes of footage. I sent her 9 texts throughout the day, roughly one per hour, with prompts such as “Record the next conversation you have,” or “grab 30 seconds of whatever you see.” Leslie did most of the recording herself, though, making sure to get a little video from each activity. I edited the video down to three and a half minutes, with most clips running about 7 seconds each (so that the style is like a series of Twitter Vine videos strung together). Here’s the result:


Leslie was a very good sport, but she reported challenges to wearing Google Glass. “It kind of felt like a chain around my neck,” she said. “It really felt like a collar. It creates this barrier between you and the world.” On the plus side, she said it did give her a different perspective on her day, and she thought the approach could be used for “creating empathy” for someone’s point of view. As she put it, “someone who has a real cause and they want the world to see things through their eyes.”

Important Lessons
1. Many people can’t — or won’t — wear Google Glass.
Several people refused to participate in this project. For instance, I met a street artist last year who I thought would be an ideal subject. I e-mailed him an invitation and made my best case for why he might want to participate. No reply. Then last week, I happened to run into him on the street near my apartment and asked him directly. He declined, saying that “it goes against everything I believe in as an artist,” and that it felt like I was trying to attach a tracking device to him. I told him I respected his decision and I didn’t push it. Two other people turned me down as well in protest of the approach.

So I decided to ask students in the class. Stephen was willing, but he wears eyeglasses, and the Google Glass would not fit comfortably over his specs. While Google now sells its device custom fit to regular eyeglasses, this is too expensive an approach to loan to a subject for a day to record a story.

2. Taking video footage at random is too invasive.
The original plan was to have the camera on Google Glass automatically kick on at various times throughout the day. Sources I’ve talked to about the idea have been most put off by this loss of control, even though I assured them that nothing would be published or shown to anyone else without their permission. As a result, one important function I now plan to add is an opt out before any video recording. In other words, when the app turns on, it will give the user the choice whether or not to record before it begins. That way the source can always opt out of a given prompt.

3. Google Glass too often becomes the story.
Perhaps this will fade in time, but if you wear Google Glass, people will stare, or ask you to try them, or start talking about their views on the technology, or all of the above. That makes it a challenge to try to record a typical day in the life — since on a typical day most of us do not wear a computer and camera and screen on our face. I anticipated that this would be a challenge, but it turned out to be a greater issue than I realized.

Next Steps

I think the approach of recording guided video diaries from a person’s POV perspective is still a promising idea. But Google Glass in its current form may not be the best tool to do it. It’s possible that a similar story could have been shot using a GoPro or other device. Or perhaps I just haven’t found the right story or subject yet. I did apply for a Knight Prototype Grant, so I’m eager to hear suggestions from this group in case I’m able to try to move this project forward.

One thought on “Wearable Diaries Project

  1. Jeff, I really appreciate how thoughtfully you’ve reacted to feedback through this process. You began with an idea of a fully automated, Glass-driven diary and have ended up somewhere significantly different. I see that as a huge positive – you’ve incorporated feedback from people throughout the process and ended up with a much better user experience (even if not fully implemented) and a great set of lessons learned.

    I think the personal diary with voiceover is a very interesting narrative form. I’d love to see some examples of it used for journalistic storytelling and I have every confidence that there are good ways to use it for journalism. Very impressed with where you’ve ended up on this.

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