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Imagine life without daily memories. Not recalling what you did yesterday or the day before. Many victims of Alzheimer’s disease and brain infections don’t have to imagine this memory-deficient existence—they live it. Anything that can help these sufferers retain memories is a godsend, which is why memory researchers greeted Microsoft Research’s SenseCam with such enthusiasm.

A small digital camera that is typically worn suspended from a neck strap, SenseCam automatically takes approximately two or three digital pictures every minute, in response to built-in sensors and a user-programmable timer. The camera easily stores a day’s worth of images on its internal memory card; these images can then be downloaded to a PC for viewing.

What has amazed memory researchers is the impact of the pictures. They don’t just jog the patient’s memory—studies indicate that they actually help in memory formation and retention. As one neuropsychologist working with the device observed, “Not only does it allow people to recall memories while they are looking at the images, which in itself is wonderful, but after an initial period of consolidation, it appears to lead to long-term retention of memories over many months, without the need to view the images repeatedly.” Moreover, with improved memory recall, patients exhibit greater confidence and higher self-esteem.

Initially developed in 1999, SenseCam was originally conceived as a general-purpose tool that would aid in capturing visual data. Microsoft Researchers, however, quickly realized it had potential in helping patients with memory impairment and began collaboration with Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge, England, a facility renowned for its work with memory-loss patients.

The initial results at Addenbrooke’s led to a host of clinical studies funded by Microsoft Research, including research on SenseCam’s value in treating patients with epileptic amnesia, Alzheimer’s, and severe brain injuries, as well exploring the effect of SenseCam images on memory in healthy people.

This research project was so successful that it led to Microsoft licensing the technology to Vicon, which now distributes it as a product called Revue. As well as being used in the study of memory impairment, the device also has many other possible applications, which include market research, documentary filmmaking, art projects, and classroom instruction. There is now a burgeoning international SenseCam research community comprising academics, clinicians, and practitioners from a variety of fields. More than 100 workshop, conference, and journal papers report on how SenseCam is being used, and there is an annual SenseCam Symposium where the community gathers to exchange ideas and results. It is a compelling example of how a research project has led to a commercially available product that is used in a wide variety of applications that benefit society.

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Primary Researchers

Steve Hodges

Steve Hodges leads the Sensors and Devices group at Microsoft Research Cambridge, which applies its skills across both hardware and software layers to deliver compelling new user experiences. The ultimate goal of the group is to better understand how advances in technology will impact traditional computing and the ways in which people use and interact with computing devices. Steve’s personal research focuses around sensing, ubiquitous computing, and new technologies for display and interaction.

Chris Moulin

Chris Moulin is a senior lecturer in Cognitive Neuropsychology at the University of Leeds, United Kingdom. His current research interests focus on neuropsychological impairments of memory. In particular, he is interested in the interaction of executive function and long-term memory.