Our Digital Media Officer Corinne
Pritchard explores how scientists have been using new camera
technology to discover our darkest diet and fitness secrets, and
how they're looking to overcome the ethical dilemmas of 24 hour
Your life on camera
Just how much would you be willing to
let scientists see of your life? Traditional medical research may
involve all manner of prodding, poking and even the occasional
trousers-down indignity, but smart phone and computer console
technology is allowing science to be more intrusive than
But why would you want to record every detail
of someone’s life? For starters, because our memories are fallible.
We all know that being healthy is an important part of keeping
heart disease at bay. In the past, when scientists wanted to look
into the ways we keep healthy they had to rely on their subjects
The catch with writing down what we do is that
we very easily forget what we do from one second to the next, and
often chronically underestimate the amount and type of food we eat,
the amount of exercise we do and the amount of time we spend
And while scientists have tried experiments to
work out how much movement people do every day by using
accelerometers (a device you wear on your hip that measures
movement changes), these gadgets have their limits and have proved
tricky to properly calibrate to give accurate readings. So much so
that a lot of the data we’ve got from them has been unusable.
Cameras are the next step in helping scientists get accurate
measurements. But would you volunteer to wear a camera around your
neck for most of the day, taking pictures every 15 seconds, for the
sake of science? Would you trust complete strangers with your most
private information? In a recent series of studies, nearly 200
people volunteered to do just that.
- Most of the experiments used
the Microsoft SenseCam
- Pictures were taken every
10-15 seconds during active moments
- Otherwise pictures taken
every 50 seconds
- Cameras were worn for
between 3 and 5 days (except at night)
- More than 3,000
photos were collected per day
What the scientists doing these studies wanted
to find out was whether this spy-camera view would help them get a
more accurate picture than just using diaries or
And perhaps unsurprisingly, they found the
cameras did help – and they helped improve the accuracy of diaries
and accelerometer data too. Seeing the pictures of their day helped
the participants remember when they put extra ketchup on their
chips, how big their portion sizes really were, and how long they
actually spent just sitting.
The experiments added 30 minutes a day to the
amount of sitting scientists assume we usually do – and helped them
work out that accelerometers don’t always recognise the activity of
As well as potentially helping us to be
healthier, these cameras could also help those with memory
problems, because the pictures helped participants recall
memories more easily.
In a diary you can be a salacious as you like.
You can name names or use pseudonyms, chronicle intimate moments if
you like – more or less safe in the knowledge that the diary can be
locked, or at least easily erased. Not so for photographs.
With these cameras, people weren’t only recording their own lives
but the lives of those around them – for the most part, without
their explicit consent.
Sensitive to the ethical implications, the
scientists set up a pre-screening programme. Not only were the
images only viewable through special software only available in the
lab, but participants got to go through their images and delete
anything inappropriate before they went into the study.
They were asked to make sure they didn’t wear
the cameras in any environment where privacy was expected – like a
changing room –, and to feel free to remove the camera if they felt
it was too dangerous to do so, or if people around them requested
This type of research also has another dilemma
– criminal activity. If the images depicted illegality – drugs,
drink driving – the researchers are obliged to pass them on to the
relevant authorities. The study participants had to be told in
advance that this was a risk.
Finally and perhaps most crucially, the
studies all keep to a promise not to publish any of the photographs
without express permission of everyone in them. The data will also
be published entirely anonymously. This even goes so far as
prohibiting study participants from taking the photos home or
using them elsewhere – they are strictly for the research
But are these conditions enough to make me
want to volunteer?
I’d certainly think about it. But I’m still a
bit concerned about what they might find out! Not least the number
of chocolate biscuits I really eat...