The Infra/Extraordinary column is devoted to zooming in on intriguing objects and practices of the 21st Century. Adopting a design-ethnography perspective, we will question informal urban bricolage, weird cameras, curious gestures and wonder about their cultural implications.
The other day in the Swiss Alps, among the crowd of heavily-protected people skiing and snowboarding, I couldn’t help noticing a peculiar type of people: the ones with a camera attached to the top of their helmets. It’s hard to miss them as this apparatus gives them extra inches as well as an odd robomechanical look. For those unaware of this intriguing outfit, this device is a “GoPro“, a camera named after the brand of “wearable” camcorders one can add on different types of gear for sport/adventure video and photography. Common usage of GoPros range from surfboarding to bungee jumping, snowboarding or just driving your car in memorable places.
Contemplating such devices during my day skiing, I started noticing a certain amount of GoPro-enabled people around me each time I was in the line for a ski-lift, or at the outdoor restaurants (which left me wondering about the type of video the users might get when seated sipping their coffee). What does the recent surge in such devices indicate? What does it mean with regards to the evolution of photography?
In the last fifteen years, we have seen an exponential growth of digital photography. Compact cameras, SLRs and cameras available on cell phones have become ubiquitous and are used by increasing numbers of people. This situation has led to a wide range of practices, as shown by various studies in sociology or human-computer interaction. Wearable camcorders seem to be an extension of the tendency some people have to copiously document their activities on platforms such as Flickr, Instagram or social networks in general. But there’s an important difference here: the documentation is no longer discrete; it’s continuous, as long as there’s enough battery. To some extent, this documentation is delegated to a machine that is also no longer gripped by the users; it’s attached to our clothes or to specific gear such as an helmet or your skateboard.
For people interested in Human-Computer Interaction, this practice does not come out of the blue. Certain projects conducted by Microsoft in the last ten years have dealt with this already. Gordon Bell, principal researcher in the Microsoft Research Silicon Valley Laboratory, is a long-time defender of what he calls “extreme lifelogging”, i.e. the exhaustive collection of data and content about one’s life in order to create a personal archive. This type of project also corresponds to existing products such as Vicon Revue or Memoto. And of course, readers of “As we may think” by Vannevar Bush in 1945 may find some similarities with the Memex project, a “device in which individuals would compress and store all of their books, records, and communications“.
Beyond tracing the genealogy of such an idea, what interests me here rather deals with the evolution of such practices. Talking with GoPro users and observing their use in my daily environment, I recently noticed a shift: the camera is sometimes pointed at the user(s). So, instead of filming the mountains, the ocean or the road, wearable cameras are also employed to collect footage about the people using it. Look for instance at this YouTube video called “GoPro Hero 2 rear view facing driver, Suzuki GSF 650N”:
Of course, cameras have always been used to shoot people, but what is relevant here is to see how users can do that on their own, without the help of friends or relatives. From an Actor-Network perspective, one might say that this function has been delegated to a non-human: the camera mounted on an arm attached to something close enough to frame the user. This situation is reflected in the design of the “arm” with plenty of what they call “mounting accessories” which are aimed at different contexts. There’s a whole ecosystem of artifacts and practices to observe here!
MeCam Finally, being interested in design and futures practices, I also can’t help being intrigued by the next logical move. Given this practice of filming one’s self and the recent surge in personal drones, we’re only a few steps away from what I’d call “Vanity drones”, flying robots that would film users and stream the data on social networks… But, wait a minute, I just stumbled across this MeCam, a $49 camera “designed to follow you around and stream live video to your smartphone, allowing you to upload videos to YouTube, Facebook, or other sites“.
Head-mounted cameras, necklace cams, vanity drones… all these artefacts highlight how digital photography evolved and how their design encapsulates assumptions about their use. One can see a trend towards the automation of data collection, which correspond to common practices on the Web and social media. To put it differently, these devices reveal the intricate relationships between their design and our information ecosystem.