Imagine Recording Your Whole Life – Literally

In the movie ‘Total Recall,” Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character takes a mind vacation to Mars and ends up really on Mars with his brain completely — almost — reprogrammed.

In their new book with the same name, two Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) researchers are instead working to enable people to record, store, search, and play back every moment of their lives.

It’s not as exciting as reprogramming your mind with a different history, but it’s a lot closer to what can be done using today’s technology.

The book gets its title from the idea that camera, storage, search, and other key technologies have become sufficiently small and sophisticated, with high enough resolution, and so cheap that storing and retrieving a chunk of video of something you did or said ten years ago is doable.

To the two Microsoft Research (MSR) computer scientists leading the project, it is not only doable but it’s doable in the near future, and they’ve already started work to make it happen.

For instance, the cost and physical size of hard disk storage devices continues to plummet. The same goes for digital cameras and other digitizing sensors. Databases are able to hold and search orders of magnitude more data than just a few years ago.

One of the two researchers, Gordon Bell, started recording as much and as many sources of data on his personal life as possible more than 10 years ago, according to materials provided by Microsoft.

“With help from evolving hardware — an automatic camera, an arm strap that logged biometrics, a voice recorder, a pedometer, a desktop scanner — he archived as much of his daily life as possible,” including e-mails, the materials said. In three or four years, he collected hundreds of thousands of files full of diverse data. Bell has continued, and even expanded, his data collecting since he started.

MSR researcher Jim Gemmell started work on a system to categorize, index, and access all of that burgeoning mass of information, calling it MyLifeBits, beginning in 2001. Gemmell and another researcher built the MyLifeBits software.

The MyLifeBits software “leverages SQL Server to support: hyperlinks, annotations, reports, saved queries, pivoting, clustering, and fast search. [It] is designed to make annotation easy, including gang annotation on right click, voice annotation, and web browser integration. It includes tools to record web pages, IM transcripts, radio and television,” the materials said.

In recent years, MSR has contributed to a number of Microsoft products, including the Surface touch-screen, tabletop computer.

Bell and Gemmell wrote the book to explain the concepts, calling it the “e-memory revolution.” They talked about it in a March 2007 article in Scientific American as well as in formal scientific papers.

Whether or not the concept catches on, of course, is unknown at this point. However, if Bell’s past history is any indication, he and Gemmell may be onto something.

Bell is an applied research type, after all. He was vice president of research and development at Digital Equipment Corp. responsible for developing the VAX minicomputer architecture in the 1970s. More recently, in 1987, Bell led the cross-agency group as head of the National Science Foundation’s Computing Directorate that made the plans for what became the Internet, according to his Web page.

Gemmell, meanwhile, has done some work on products as well — contributing to Windows XP, Windows Server 2008, and even to Microsoft’s Bing search engine.

Microsoft has set up a Web site with more information about the book.

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