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Human memory is all too fallible. We all misplace items or forget to run an errand occasionally; our memories of specific events can fade with time as well. But severe memory issues can have a devastating impact on quality of life for individuals with clinically diagnosed memory disorders that are related to acquired brain injury (for example, an accident) or neurodegenerative diseases (for example, Alzheimer's disease).
There is no cure for memory loss. In the past, neuropsychologists had to rely on fairly primitive devices (such as photo albums, diaries, and electronic reminders) to help patients cope with memory conditions. Technology is rapidly evolving, however, and providing new opportunities to help patients.
A notable development in the field is the SenseCam, a memory-enhancing camera developed by Microsoft Researchers at the Cambridge campus and subsequently licensed to Vicon. Vicon sells the SenseCam as a medical device, the Vicon Revue, which has been named one of the 100 best innovations of 2010 by Popular Science. The SenseCam uses a wide-angle lens to document the patient's day—including places visited and people seen—creating visual "memories" through pictures. The camera, which is worn around the neck, takes a photograph:
At the end of the day, the patient downloads the images to a computer. These images create visual reminders of events from throughout the day—essentially, they are digital memories. These SenseCam images appear to stimulate the episodic memory of patients who view them. Unlike staged (or posed) photographs, which tend to change the nature of the very moment being captured, SenseCam images are recorded passively, with no conscious effort or intervention. Combined with the relatively large number of images, this seems to have a powerful effect on recall. Numerous patients have benefitted from true autobiographical recall through this technology; typically, a handful of images stimulates the same feelings and emotions the wearer had when they occurred.
Ultimately, we hope that SenseCam will have the potential to alleviate the onset of Alzheimer's disease in at-risk patients. Multiple studies around the globe, funded by Microsoft External Research, have helped us understand how SenseCam can help patients with a variety of memory-loss conditions. These studies include:
The SenseCam was recently featured in TIME magazine and is currently on display at the Science Museum in London. For more information, see the Introduction to SenseCam.
—Steve Hodges, Principal Hardware Engineer, Microsoft Research, and Kristin Tolle, Director, Natural User Interfaces Team, External Research division of Microsoft Research