Mining personal data to discover what people care about has become big business for companies such as Facebook and Google. Now a project from Microsoft Research is trying to bring that kind of data mining back home to help people explore their own piles of personal digital data according to Microsoft USENET newsgroups.
Software called Lifebrowser processes photos, e-mails, Web browsing and search history, calendar events, and other documents stored on a person’s computer and identifies landmark events. Its timeline interface can explore, search, and discover those landmarks as a kind of memory aid.
Lifebrowser’s interactive timeline looks like a less polished version of Facebook’s recently introduced Timeline feature. However, as USENET posts point out, the design predates Facebook’s and doesn’t rely on a user to manually curate it. Photos, e-mails, and other documents and data points appear in chronological order, but Lifebrowser’s timeline only shows those judged to be associated with “landmark” events by artificial intelligence algorithms. A user can slide a “volume control” to change how significant data has to be if it is to appear on the timeline. A search feature can pull up landmark events on a certain topic.
Behind the scenes, Lifebrowser uses several machine-learning techniques to sift through personal data and determine what is important to its owner. When judging photos, Lifebrowser looks at properties of an image file for clues, including whether the file name was modified or the flash had fired. It even examines the contents of a photo using machine-vision algorithms to learn how many people were captured in the image and whether it was taken inside or outdoors. The “session” of photos taken at one time is also considered as a group, for cues such as how long an event was and how frequently photos were taken.
Lifebrowser looks for clues about whether a file is especially significant, and asks for extra hints if it’s unsure. A screen saver prompts a user to inform Lifebrowser if certain photos are of “landmark” events or not, and a simple dialogue does the same for calendar invitations. Over time, the system learns what’s important to you, and adapts.
The technology is fairly new and its still to be seen whether or not it will also pull up posts and topics pulled from USENET newsgroups over time.