Can Better Memories Be Captured?

Two companies–OMG Life and Music and Memory–took very different paths to working on issues related to Alzheimer’s and other neurological disorders. Now they’re hoping iPods and smart cameras can make what we all remember more meaningful.

Can Better Memories Be Captured?
[Image: Flickr user Doctor Popular]

Your grandmother may be on Facebook –indeed seniors are signing up for the social network at a rate comparable to how fast teens are abandoning it– but that doesn’t mean she’s sharing bathroom selfies with her fellow septuagenarians. Nor is grandpa likely to strap on a FuelBand as he hoofs it through the park for his daily constitutional.


While our cultural quest to document and (over) share every nanosecond of our lives, continues unabated, seniors aren’t necessarily as hyper-driven as their more youthful counterparts to track themselves, and their babies, pets, cars, and employees if the popularity of Fitbits and similar devices is any indicator.

Yet as we’re starting to question the value of orchestrating our every move to make sense of this existential snag in the fabric of our lives, two separate organizations have hit on a way to make such tools work for elders in surprising ways.

Sound Vision

The first happened almost by accident. Back in 2006, Dan Cohen, a Long Island social worker and self-professed “tech guy” began to wonder if already-ubiquitous iPods were available to seniors in nursing facilities. Music activities are always available in homes, but Cohen had a hunch that if those suffering from dementia, Alzheimer’s, or even loneliness might benefit if had access to the music they personally loved in a little device.

“I Googled iPod and nursing homes,” Cohen recalls. “Out of 16,000 homes in the U.S., I couldn’t find one that was providing them.” So he called one nearby and asked if they’d let him see if there was anything to his theory of creating personal playlists for the residents. The results were immediate. “They loved the idea of holding a personal jukebox in the palm of their hand,” he says. Many haven’t heard their favorite music in years.”

Cohen knew he couldn’t rely on such anecdotal evidence to roll out his iPod project to more facilities. So he started working with the Institute for Music and Neurological Function, which had already done research into the influence music had on memory in patients with dementia.

Based on those and other findings that suggested seniors could benefit from personalized musical playlists, Cohen started Music and Memory, a nonprofit dedicated to getting iPods into the hands of those suffering from Alzheimer’s or dementia. Though Cohen says he doesn’t have any family members who have such memory loss, he admits that he wonders what his life would be like if he didn’t have his own personal soundtrack available.


“Fifty percent of all people in nursing homes never get a visitor,” he explains, not because they don’t have family, but because family members are often discouraged by the fact that they’re not recognizable to their loved one. Cohen’s observed time after time, that music from their youth both animates and calms residents of these facilities. “Long-term memories are still there, speaking to their emotional system,” he contends. “There is a back door to people that’s a great opportunity to restore relationships.”

Published research into music therapy is scant after 2010 and no new treatments have emerged since the introduction of the medication Memantine in 2004. This frustrates Cohen. “Finding a cure is important, but now you have more than 5 million people who have [Alzheimer’s] and 40% who have it can’t experience pleasure, but we know with music it is possible for most to give a sense of comfort and joy.”

Cohen’s job is, in part, convincing homes to adopt the use of iPods for residents. Music and Memory has currently placed the devices in more than 400 senior care facilities across 40 states. Cohen’s movement to restore music to seniors may be on the verge of its breakout moment, thanks to this year’s Alive Inside. Filmmaker Michael Rossato-Bennett spent three years shadowing Cohen as he re-introduced patients to their favorite music.

A clip from the film went viral last year. Henry, slumped in his wheelchair, is mostly catatonic until earbuds are put in place and the music begins. Immediately, he sits up and opens his eyes wide. He’s able to answer questions coherently and even croons a few bars of “I’ll Be Home For Christmas.”

For as many times as he’s seen people light up when the music hits their ears, it never gets old for Cohen. In each person he sees music’s ability to reconnect with themselves. “When people go into a nursing home, they’re forced to leave much of their old life behind,” he explains. The loss of identity heaped on to the fog of that comes with the loss of short-term memory tends to silence people. “Without music, we are leaving our own families and ultimately ourselves to isolation.”

View Finders

While music can unlock long ago memories that lie deep within our grey matter, people with dementia and Alzheimer’s are often at a loss to recall things that happened moments ago.


Through his work as managing director of OMG Life (as in Oxford Metrics Group, the 30-year-old company that specializes in motion capture–and earned an Oscar for its work on Gravity), Simon Randall says he’s come in contact with many people whose lives have been debilitated from memory impairments due to Alzheimer’s, dementia, and a range of traumatic brain injuries. “When you don’t remember something it didn’t happen,” he maintains, “Knowing that you got married but not remembering who was there, where it was, or what you ate is the norm for many people with brain disorders.”

But what if you could capture your breakfast and your interaction with a social worker daily? In this case, a wearable camera that snaps photos based on changes in the environment has been instrumental in boosting the mental processes of patients with memory impairment.

The company developed Vicon Revue which evolved from early work around the Microsoft Sensecam and used across a range of public and private medical clinics and institutions, universities, research centers, and by private individuals. Randall explains that the device was worn by patients throughout their day to snap images at core moments. “The patient would regularly review these images with a care worker, physician, or loved one as part of their wider therapy/treatment,” he says. The constant review of recent events in these images was intended to stimulate short-term brain function, called reflective memory, and to ground discussions around tangible activities.

“It was only through the Vicon Revue that many of these individuals were able to keep their memories,” says Randall, though pilot studies have only anecdotal evidence.

Nevertheless, a few high-profile successes turned the spotlight on OMG. “Lots of people saying they loved the idea of the camera and wanted to take it to music festivals, on exotic holidays and adventures, to document their work activities and for normal everyday stuff like playing with their children,” Randall asserts.

That’s when the company decided to explore the idea of creating a wearable camera with the same sensor technology that would allow it to take snaps only at important moments. Call it reverse engineering “nana technology.”


OMG Life developed Autographer, a camera that constantly monitors the user’s movement and changes in front of the lens such as movement, heat, temperature, and light to help decide when and how to take an image. Users can set the amount of photos they want to take and the device has GPS. “So can you search old images by location and watch your activities alongside seeing your bread-crumb trail on a map,” he points out.

Like Cohen, Randall sees Autographer as a way to head off our own inevitable loss of memory. “Intelligently capturing images at core moments which can then be easily relived as stop-frame video is a good start,” he says. It’s on us to work out which events we’d like to preserve. “Interestingly these tend to be the ones where you would also benefit most from staying fully engaged in the moment,” Randall observes. “We are all constantly re-making sense of our past experiences.”


About the author

Lydia Dishman is a reporter writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.