Total recall?

We explore 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 surveillance.

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 ever.

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 keeping diaries.

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 sitting down.

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.

Technological leap

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.

Total recall

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.

Quick facts:

  • 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 accelerometers.

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 standing up.

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.

Private lives

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 it.

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 experiment only.

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...