Imagine tracking the number of calories you consume each day or the amount of time you spend sitting in front of the TV simply by wearing your smartphone on a lanyard around your neck. It may sound strange, but this is the direction health researchers are moving with the development of Microsoft’s SenseCam, a wearable camera developed by Microsoft Research Cambridge.

In the theme issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, researchers analyzed the benefits of wearable cameras for better understanding the relationship between lifestyle behaviors and health. According to these new studies, SenseCam technology has the potential to not only help measure sedentary behavior, active travel, and nutrition information, but it could also help combat the symptoms of memory loss for those with Alzheimer's and dementia.

For example, the traditional way to monitor calorie intake is to keep a food diary, but researchers say that self-reported data is prone to errors. Therefore, scientists have moved toward objective methods of logging behavior that take the burden away from the person doing the monitoring. However, before this technology becomes available to the public, the “wearability” of the device and ethical concerns about surveillance and information security must be addressed.

“While there are challenges to overcome before wearable cameras will be used by the general public as consumer devices, today’s announcement suggests that the science of understanding the relationship between lifestyle behaviors and health outcomes could be enhanced by the use of wearable cameras,” said study author Aiden Doherty, PhD, of the University of Oxford, in an interview with Healthline.

From Accelerometers to SenseCams to Smartphones

The idea of a wearable camera sprung from previous research in the field of ‘lifelogging,’ “the digital capture of a person’s everyday activities from a f?rst-person point of view in an unobtrusive and passive fashion,” according to the study “Wearable Cameras in Health.”

The SenseCam is the most recent development in wearable camera technology. It works by automatically taking a picture every 20 seconds when triggered by sensors that log temperature, movement, light, and passive infrared data. It also logs a nearly 30-minute per day difference in sedentary behavior estimates compared to an accelerometer, another, perhaps less accurate, method of measuring physical activity.

Researchers hope to integrate SenseCam software into smartphones, “devices that users already own and are accustomed to charging and maintaining,” according to the study “The Smartphone as a Platform for Wearable Cameras in Health Research.” Moreover, automatically uploading collected data to a cloud-based server could open the door to real-time data analysis and health interventions. Smartphones with GPS technology and a proximity to WiFi networks could also provide valuable information about the location of the person wearing the device and his or her interactions with others.

The Wearable Cameras of the Future

Wearable camera technology is bursting onto the health research scene and into the global consumer market.

“It is noteworthy that Google, through ‘Project Glass’, are investing considerable effort into wearable cameras,” Doherty said.

Vicon OMG in the UK are also releasing a new, similar, product called the Autographer, and Memoto, based in Sweden, have received more than $500,000 dollars in Kickstarter funding to build a wearable camera, he said.

“Ana Rita Sousa has led work in Portugal showing that participants find the review of wearable camera images to be an engaging experience,” Doherty said. “Outside of health, others are interested in using wearable cameras in in fields such as market research, where the images help elicit information from consumers on their purchasing decisions.”

As for Doherty’s personal ambition, he would like to investigate whether wearable cameras can enhance the science of measuring and influencing human lifestyle choices.

"Recent health literature suggests that technologies may offer the ability to address core components of successful approaches to encourage behavior change, such as self-monitoring, timely behavioral feedback, and goal setting,” he said.

However, consumers need to be reassured that the thousands of photos and other bits of personal information collected by the cameras are stored securely. Memoto's pitch for its wearable camera poses a particularly probing question for privacy-minded buyers: are you prepared for "pictures of every single moment of your life, complete with information on when you took it and where you were"?

“While the potential advantages of wearable cameras in health research are exciting, further ethical development may be needed before such devices can be used by the public at large,” Doherty said.

Learn More:

What is “fitness as a lifestyle?”
Eating healthy on vacation
The importance of technology in health care
Exercise to keep your brain healthy and your memory sharp