Sunday, January 04, 2015

Autographer: serendipitous photographs of variable quality with buggy software (PS: not waterproof)

Despite the occasional inane tweet may appear on my timeline to suggest otherwise, I’m not really into life-blogging (or lifelogging). But I was curious about the Autographer wearable 5 Megapixel camera, which clips to your clothes or hangs round your neck and takes photographs at a predefined rate without intervention.

A black box 9cm tall x 3.5cm wide x 1cm thick and weighing only 58g, there are sensors at the top left to defect changes in lighting and colour, and others inside to detect shifts in movement, direction and temperature. GPS coordinates are stored for each photograph if the device is outside and can pick up a fix from the satellites above.

The top left has a simple display hidden behind the casing to guide you through the configuration menu, and two buttons to switch the device on and off (and trigger a sequence of nine photographs in a row if you think something noteworthy is about to happen).

The bottom third of the device houses the 136° wide angle lens in behind a rotating lens cover that can be quickly spun to guarantee privacy. With 8MB of memory the Autographer’s capable of storing 27,000 images internally, and the internal battery lasts for 3-10 hours depending on the frequency of shots, though that capacity is greatly reduced if you switch on Bluetooth to connect to an iOS or Android device.

Mac and Windows software is provided and hooking the device up using a USB cable allows you to import your photographs, tag them, and create stop-go films and animated GIFs. I found the Mac version of the software very unintuitive and avoided it at all costs. (Due to the folder hierarchy on the device – a deliberate design decision – the Autographer isn’t detected as a camera when you plug it into a Mac/PC and your favourite photo programme won’t automatically import all the images.)

The iOS app promised everything you’d need to manage the Autographer device. You could preview the pictures, favourite the good ones, delete bad ones, select multiple ones and transfer them into your photostream, as well as create the short film clips.

Vine and Autographer seemed great companions. Up to 50 images could be exported into a short film, 48 at 8 frames a second (24 at 4fps; 12 at 2fps) matches the 6 second Vine limit. Although the app allowed an audio/music track to be added underneath the footage – the Autographer has no mic – I never got round to finding a way to record a short clip on the iPod Touch I used and get it into the music library so that the Autographer app could access it.

Taping the Autographer to a speaker stand at the side of the TEDxStormont stage captured images of the speakers throughout the day. Stick it to the window of a train and you can compress the ride from Lisburn station up to Central in six seconds. Clip it to your car’s sun visor and it records the journey into work.

However Autographer was let down by few things. Firstly as a camera it didn’t consistently capture very good images. Photography's an art and requires practice. But pointing and clicking your smart phone with no thought would often generate better pictures.

The colours and exposure were awful. Everything became blurry in dark or artificial light (ie, everything inside, early morning or in the evening). Wear it inside St George’s Market and one in ten shots might be usable. Here's the best three from the market a couple of days before Christmas and one from Divis mountain last week.

Secondly, Autographer was let down by its Bluetooth. Connectivity would frequently be lost while browsing through captured images or while exporting them to the iPod Touch to make a clip. You’d lose 1 minute or two turning Bluetooth back on on the Autographer, allowing it to reconnect, then manually selecting the photos you wanted to export again.

The Autographer was also let down by the firmware/iOS software. My mode of working managed the device from the iOS app alone. Photos could be marked for deletion through the app and when Bluetooth next disconnected, the Autographer would process the delete requests. However, while the images were deleted from the device, the record of the images was left in the index file. So next time I reconnected it to the iPod Touch, there would be lots of greyed out photos displayed and OMGDeviceErrorFileSystem error messages if I tried to click on them.

A bug that was reproducible and should have been fixable.

Three days into ownership (6 September 2014) I reported this to Autographer Customer Support and we conversed fairly regularly for the next four weeks, supplying screenshots on request. The most helpful suggestion back from Autographer was an auto.ini file that I could copy from the Mac onto the Autographer that would trigger it to reset and reformat itself, removing all images and removing all ghost images too. But if a new picture was deleted, the problem would reoccur.

The last communication from Autographer Customer Support on 30 September said:
Thanks for that information and feedback. I’ve passed this information on to our developers. As soon as we get a response from them, we’ll be in touch.
They never got back in touch, not even when I chased them. New versions of the app didn’t fix the problem; neither was there a firmware upgrade to address it.

Autographer is a great idea, though its maker OMG/Oxford Metrics Group seem to have had a change of heart, or at least a change of direction away from consumers. Half way through this post the tense switched from present to past as I stumbled on the notice on Autographer’s website.
Autographer has been pioneering the wearable camera market since the launch of the world’s first wearable camera in 2012. As a result of the rich user feedback from our community we’ve been rapidly evolving the functionality, product design and applications that are required to bring the benefits of companion cameras to the wider global market. Our dual focus on solving the underlying technical challenges of the category whilst also developing the market and our commercial operations have been gaining strong traction but stretching our resources. Based on our learnings from the last few years we believe we can achieve more for the market by focussing our efforts on creating the enabling technologies for the category and working through large global brand partners to bring future devices and functionality to the market.

This means that we will no longer be manufacturing and selling the Autographer device in its current guise. We remain committed to support our existing Autographer users and collaborators and are very proud of what we have achieved together so far. You’ll see less of us on our social channels for now but rest assured we’re busy acting on all your feedback to enable the next generation of companion devices and services.

Simon Randall, Managing Director
It’s a shame, as capturing serendipitous photographs could be a great application, particularly when out for a long walk where Autographer tended to get its best shots. Or when a rogue firework went horizontally into a tree during a local Halloween display!

But perhaps it’s no real surprise that Autographer have abandoned their current consumer wearable camera form factor and software. Despite good reviews from tech journalists who trialled the camera for an hour or two in London Zoo at its launch, the reality of using it in the wild generated photographs of variable quality and it was a hassle to manage the device.

Autographer’s main competitor was Memoto, renamed Narrative which takes a different approach. Their smaller lighter device with a tiny lens clips onto your clothes and takes a photo ever 30 seconds (or immediately if you tap it twice) but you need a Mac/PC to extract the photos, upload them to Narrative’s cloud, and sync them over the web to your mobile App. All this requires an annual subscription. Their second generation device – Narrative Clip 2 – will launch in 2015 and offers a 86° wider-angle lens with a 8 megapixel sensor, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity and a range of mounting options.

My Autographer days seem to be over.

It was sitting on my knee last night while I used the iPod Touch looked at photographs it had captured while out for walks over Christmas – keeping the two devices as close together as possible to prevent the Bluetooth timeout – and the shiny slid off my knee and plopped head first into the cup of tea sitting beside me. Despite the lens and USB socket not being submerged and despite being fished out within half a second and dried out, I can confirm that while the Autographer is splashproof, liquid obviously leaks in via the buttons and top sensor and it’s not wanting to switch back on or recharge.

Which explains what would have happened if I'd attached it to hang under the dog's collar and it drank from a puddle ... 

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