At least a half-dozen times every week, I reach into my pocket and pull out my smartphone in an attempt to take a photo or video of something my kids are doing. As a dad, I’m eager to capture those magic, fleeting moments when my two boys are playing, not fighting. When one of them is nice to the dog for a change. When a kid is lost in their own world, building a universe around a set of blocks or a cardboard box.
More often than not, however, the act of trying to capture that moment breaks the spell. The kid looks up and stops focusing on his fantasy. The boys stop playing and start asking to see the phone. I’ve deleted dozens of photos and videos that capture them in the act of walking over to me, hand outstretched, asking with sudden urgency, “Can I see? Can I see?”
So I was intrigued by Google Clips, the new AI-driven camera the company showed off yesterday at its hardware event. It’s a little unit you can set on a table or bookshelf, or clip to a fence or shirt. Turn it on, and it starts watching its surroundings. It uses AI to learn which faces are important to you, then starts automatically capturing photos and videos. I was similarly excited by early promotional videos of parents in Google Glass playing with their young kids, capturing photos and videos in a hands-free way that didn’t interrupt the moment.
A lot of people don’t feel this way, though. Many have responded to this device by calling it creepy and invasive. This is a similar reaction to the one that tanked Google Glass. People don’t like the idea of an always-on camera watching them, doubly so if it’s powered by artificial intelligence and created by a company that makes its money by collecting your personal data and allowing advertisers to target you.
Those are all valid concerns, but I think they miss some crucial details of how the product was designed, and the use cases that Google is smartly pushing.
First, the camera doesn’t share data or images with any of Google’s cloud-connected services. The AI system is localized to the hardware, and the photos and videos it takes are also stored on the device. You can review them using an app, and transfer them to your phone over Wi-Fi. Everything is encrypted, and nothing gets shared to the web or social media unless you decide to do that.
Do I trust Google to actually respect my privacy? Yeah, I do. Secretly exfiltrating intimate photos of its customers and their families doesn’t help Google sell more ads, and it most definitely will be a huge PR nightmare if discovered. Google Photos is, with customers’ explicit permission, already getting hundreds of millions of images to study. Google understands that, when it comes to hardware, privacy can be a strong selling point.
Will some clever hacker figure out a way to tap into a Clips camera and make off with the images? Maybe. But what would photos of me and my family futzing around in our living room be worth? I’m personally a lot more worried about credit rating agencies and health care providers leaking everything from my Social Security number to my driver’s license.
Now, I wouldn’t wear Clips on me when going to public places. I also wouldn’t attach it to the jungle gym at the local park and assume it will only capture shots of my kids, or that other parents won’t be justifiably freaked out. A device like this seems appropriate only in a private space where everyone has given their consent. The fact that Google put a heavy emphasis on privacy and security while introducing the device makes me think it learned from the Google Glass fiasco.
(Quick aside: you could argue I’m using these gadgets to craft a mom-and-pop surveillance state for my kids. That’s one of the weird things about being a parent in this day and age. I’m my kids’ legal guardian for the next 18 years or so, and so I get to make most of their life decisions. But if they told me they didn’t want a photo or video shared publicly, I wouldn’t. And as they get older, they will need more privacy. I don’t plan on keeping a video camera in a teenager’s room.)
So, that gets back to whether Clips will be worth using, and whether it can deliver some value. For parents of young children, I’m going to guess it will, and I think I have some evidence. Strangely enough, one of my favorite apps to use recently is the one that comes with my home security camera from Logi (formerly Logitech). It has a feature called Daily Brief that shows you a high-speed capture of the last 24 hours. It slows down when it detects a lot of motion and records sparingly when no one is around. It’s making decisions, in other words, about what’s worth recording.
I keep the camera in my kids’ room so I can hear and see them at night. It helps when they decide it would be fun to scale a bookshelf, or when I want to know if they are actually asleep before turning on the TV in the living room. It’s been in there long enough that we don’t pay attention to it, so it captures the glorious, mundane activity of our lives in a completely candid way.
The video quality isn’t great and it’s very sped up, but it’s still fun to peek at the little moments you might otherwise miss. Sometimes one of my boys will wake in the middle of the night, find something to do, then fall back asleep. Sometimes they play together in the morning for a while before rousing their sleepy parents by jumping on their heads. There are tantrums and bedtime stories and everything in between.
I’ll have to spend some time with Clips before I can judge if it actually learns to capture interesting moments and properly safeguards that data. But as a parent, I understand immediately the pain point a device like this could solve, and am eager to see if it can deliver on the promise of an ambient camera that can live in my home and make intelligent choices about what memories to preserve.