Autographer Wearable Camera: A Creative, Bold, But Disturbing, Vision Of The Future


The release this month of the 'Autographer', a £400 chewing gum pack-sized camera designed to be worn around the neck which automatically takes pictures without your - or even the wearer's - knowledge, sounds like something that could send privacy groups, and tabloid editors, into paroxysms of rage.

And if you were walking in the street and saw someone wearing one, you might be within your rights to be a little creeped out. But, as it turns out, you might be even more creeped out if you were the one wearing it.

In fact we'd go further: you might not just be creeped out - you might be actively disturbed.

Vilem Flusser famously wrote that traditional photography was a form of hunting - and pointed out that both share the same vocabulary. Shooting pictures is "a hunt for new states of things, situations never seen before, for the improbable, for information," he wrote.

The Autographer flips this around completely.

Instead of giving you a rifle with which to hunt for pictures, the Autographer passively encourages you to hunt for a more interesting life. It's like a Nike Fuelband for weird situations. The hope is that instead of regretting missed opportunities, you'll instead find shots that you didn't even know you wanted.

So you can see where the makers of the Autographer, OMG Life, are coming from. In a world where you're always carrying a decent camera in your pocket, but don't have the quick-draw skills of a train robber from the Old West, it's not unusual to see something interesting or amazing happen in front of you - a stunning, momentary sunset, or a lovely family moment in the garden - and miss it. The Autographer is designed to solve that problem by making photography a process of post-hoc discovery, rather than moment-ruining aggression. On its website OMG Life highlight a number of use cases - and genuinely great images captured with the device.

In hardware terms, it's pretty much up to the job. The camera, which looks basic and plasticy, but attractive, uses a set of on-board sensors (colour, temperature, magnetometer, motion and acceleration) to decide when to take a photo. As long as you've turned it on and rotated the bright-yellow lens cap open, it will carry on doing so all day, as long as the battery holds out (which it will for several days at least, based on our tests).

Autographer Test Images

Autographer Test Images

Alongside these images the Autographer captures GPS and time data, and once plugged in via micro USB or connected via Bluetooth presents all the pictures in easy-to-manage groups, with a dedicated iOS, Mac and Windows app. You can export these images either as videos, GIFs or individual shots - and share the best ones with your friends.

The images themselves aren't always great, unfortunately. The five-megapixel camera uses a fish-eye lens which captures 8GB worth of 136-degree pictures (which is good) but often results in washed-out, blurry or overly-white images (which is not). In a sense though, the straightforward quality of the pictures isn't the point - not every picture it takes will be worth keeping. It's the one in a hundred that you didn't know you wanted, but captures the moment you'd already forgotten, for which you'll buy the Autographer.

But there is a big problem here. Because for all the ambition and artistic, philosophical merit, the Autographer is potentially a very creepy product.

You can argue that creepiness depends where you wear it. And you'd be right. But that's not always as simple to work out as you'd think.

Here's an example: we tested the device on a day trip around the Dorset town of Lyme Regis. It was a wholesome, fun sunny day, which included a flyover by the Red Arrows, fish and chips by the sea and a go on the local Lifeboat raffle. You might expect the Autographer to have captured some of that atmosphere - maybe not pixel-perfect shots of the RAF jet planes overhead, but the colour and fun of a day at the beach.

But when we sat down to look at the pictures later, the reality was pretty horrendous. For what the Autographer actually captured - alongside one admittedly pretty good Red Arrows shot - was faces. Hundreds of faces. Faces we didn't know, of families we hadn't even noticed at the time. People unaware that they were on camera, taken by a photographer - me - who didn't realise he was taking a picture.

It made me feel literally ill. After downloading a few shots for our review, we deleted the whole lot.

Other tests - on a deserted beach, for instance - were more successful. But I was so paranoid someone unexpected might come into view in their swimming gear that I couldn't wear it for very long.

Above: HuffPost's Editorial Team Captured Via Autographer

Autographer's makers OMG LIfe say that they have attempted to redress these privacy concerns in both the hardware and the nature of the device, such as the yellow lens ring and the notification blink light. But the fact is this: the Autographer is an unassuming, black, small camera with which people aren't familiar, and won't notice. If you bought one today you might as well be wearing a giant cowboy hat with a hole cut out.

OMG Life say that individual responsibility is key. Simon Randall, head of OMG Life, explains in a press release:

"There is growing interest to capture and share precious moments in our everyday lives. Our recent research found that the majority of Brits want to use wearable technologies to create a library of their life (30 per cent) or to aid memory (28 per cent) and Autographer was created with these purposes in mind."

But aside from the obvious point - that individuals lacking in responsibility can use the Autographer just as easily as anyone else, which does open up genuine privacy concerns - the problem for this reviewer is that even if - or especially if - you do have a sense of ethical boundaries when it comes to photography, you won't find many places you'll want to use this product.

If you're on a lonely hike or nature walk, at a wedding where consent is implied or actively given, or explicitly doing something weird or creative for artistic reasons, perhaps it makes sense - and could be a handy, though expensive, new way to take interesting images. Again, OMG Life's website does a good job of pointing out places you might want to use the Autographer.

But it's just not that easy. Say you're at the Zoo. The Autographer might take good pictures of giraffes (or not) but it will also take lots of pictures of children you don't know. And you'll have to load them onto your computer, sort through them and delete them. The result might be some cool unexpected photos for your Facebook account. The process of taking and sorting them, right now, is creepy.

On its own terms - within its stated aims and use cases - the Autographer is a useable, attractive device which suffers from a high price tag and is let down by patchy picture quality and relative lack of options for customising when/where it takes images. It's not a lost cause - with a bit more work this could be a better, more thoughtful product.

But in the real world? It's something else entirely. Either the Autographer is something you'll have to work hard to use without feeling queasy... Or it's not. Which makes us feel even more nervous.

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