John McCann

Lifebits project

In Technology on March 22, 2006 at 3:09 pm

Gordon Bell, a 71 year old legend of the computer world, heads a small Microsoft research center in San Francisco where he is inventing a new way for us to use our computer and gadgets. Total Recall, an article in IEEE Spectrum summarizes his work.

His project, MyLifeBits, is the digital distillation of, almost literally, his every waking minute. It started out as an offhand experiment, but today its goal is nothing short of changing the way we use computers, and by extension, the way we live. At its heart, MyLifeBits is a big database on a personal computer, into which go the correspondence, keyboard-based chores, and even the sights and sounds of everyday life. It automatically swallows up and indexes e-mails, keystrokes, recorded phone calls, images, video, and every Web page that graces its user’s computer’s screen.

One of the ways he captures his daily life is via a small camera that he wears around his neck. Sensors tell the software in the camera when to snap a picture. At the end of the day, the camera contents and the sensor data (e.g., GPS data) are transferred to a database.

Every electronic device he touches seems to generate data for database:

Today, every keystroke on his computer is captured as it is tapped. Office phone calls are not only logged but also digitally recorded in their entirety. Every Web page is stored when it’s viewed—not just the URL, but the entire image is jammed in there.

The database is also populated by everything that Bell has collected in his life: the contents of his file cabinets, photo albums, video tapes, books, academic papers, correspondences, medical records, etc. The result: a terabyte repository of his lifebits.

The article ends with a nice summary of where this research is going.

We’ll find out, soon enough. By 2015, all your life bits will fit into two or three matchboxes, about 50 bucks’ worth of data. Your smartphone-sensecam will dangle casually around your neck, snapping away. Want to know what you wore on that blind date you went on last month? How many glasses of chardonnay you drank, which Web pages you viewed the next morning, whom you called on the phone and what you talked about? Where you were for every minute that weekend? Let’s take a look.

A Powerpoint presentation about LifeBits opens with this slide:


I love this slide because it depicts what most of us have in common: cabinets, boxes and digital devices stuffed with things we have collected during our lives. Gordon Moore has shown us that we can put all of this information into digital form so that it can be indexed, cross-referenced and searched, thus making it much more valuable to us and those who follow us.

  1. Sounds Cool, But What Good Is It?

    The latest issue of Fast Company has an article about Gordon Bell, who is running a project to digitize and record all of the information he generates and encounters in the course of his life.  He calls the project MyLifeBits….

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