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This watch-like recording device is always listening

Kapture, a new hardware project launched Tuesday on Kickstarter, is just waiting for you to tell it when to save the last 60 seconds of whatever was said. Scary? Cool? Maybe both.


If you're the kind of person who can't help but bemoan the dangers of a surveillance state since the NSA revelations this past summer, then Kapture might help bolster your theories.

Meant to be worn on your wrist at all times, the device -- which launched Tuesday on the Kickstarter crowd-funding site with a goal of raising $150,000 -- is perpetually recording the last 60 seconds of audio without the user having to do anything. With a simple tap, that time frame's contents are saved, sent to, and synced with your smartphone via Bluetooth.

It's not intended for eavesdropping or spying, and don't expect an Edward Snowden leak to confirm it's a US government plug-in any time soon. Rather, the device's creators, Mike Sarow and Matthew Dooley, envisioned a piece of hardware with an omnidirectional microphone that could let users record and store any funny, insightful, or heartwarming phrase or bit of conversation you exchange with friends and family on a daily basis.

"You don't have to have a preconceived notion that a conversation is good or funny," Sarow said in an interview. "It's always recording audio in a 60-second loop and the user simply touches the product." That duration cannot be extended, and once something falls outside the set time range, the device cannot retrieve it.

When users downloads the 60-second clip from the Kapture app, they can edit it down, name it, and attach a photo much in the same way Instagram users tinker with a recently taken photo for maximum effect. Sarow and Dooley hope to build out a platform much in the same way the popular photo-sharing app has let users share both serendipitously and purposefully recorded moments of audio from their lives. In the event your smartphone is out of range or doesn't have service, Kapture will store roughly 25 recordings locally for syncing later.


"The idea came from conversations that I had had on a personal vacation," said Sarow, who's engineering and marketing background lies almost entirely with the multinational consumer powerhouse Proctor & Gamble. At the beginning of his trip, Sarow outlined how he'd like to be able to store what was being said between him and his friends, and thought that it may be telling of the idea's value if everyone mimicked a motion of the theoretical device.

"We were doing that motion back and forth to each other to show that certain times throughout the days we had said some memorable funny or profound things," he added. So much so that Sarrow left P&G last year to make the idea a reality with Dooley, a social media guru of sorts who teaches the trade at Xavier University.

The team hopes to have the product ready to ship by spring of next year. They already have a working prototype and Sarow thinks the whole package is about "75 percent of the way there."

As to whether or not it will -- like the Pebble smartwatch -- take a promising idea and slam it headfirst into the headache-inducing realities of scaling a hardware project, Sarrow is confident Kapture will deliver. "We're so far along that we feel very comfortable that it will come out in the Kickstarter language that we can deliver the product in March of 2014," he said.

Kapture and its legal grey area
Kapture may not be a spy gadget in disguise, but it does come with all the legal concerns of one.

In the US, 12 states have what are called two-party consent laws that require one person or group in a conversation to notify the other that recording is taking place. You could see these legal safeguards in action when, say, calling a national customer service line that politely let's you know prior to reaching a representative that the call is being recorded for such and such a purpose.

Kapture, because it's perpetually recording the last minute of audio, resides in a murky legal grey area says David Greene, the Electronic Frontier Foundation's senior staff attorney.

"The tech is nothing new. What's interesting about this is that it's constantly recording," he says. "It raises the question: is it possible not to serendipitously record?"

Because the recording doesn't technically exist until the user decides to tap the device, it's not in violation of a two-party consent law if one were to inadvertently pick up audio -- but not choose to record it -- from a conversation where either party had an expectation of privacy.

Normally, lawsuits can be defended through visible equipment, Greene explained. "Someone doesn't have an expectation of privacy if someone has a microphone out or camera up."

With Kapture, "you would have to walk around with a sign on you saying 'I'm recording,'" he adds.

But would a two-party state like California ever weigh in on the device's legality? That's unlikely. Like any recording device, Greene says, the state "would have a difficult time saying this would be illegal because it clearly has legitimate uses as well."

Sarow himself is quite adamant on outlining the clear use cases of Kapture and the legal concerns involved with recording nefariously in the same way one would use the iPhone Voice Memo app for instance. For one, a user has to tap the device to initiate the saving of the audio. "You never remove the human element from the situation," he said. The range is also rather limited, picking up audio from immediate surroundings with very little discernible background noise, says Sarow.

And the device, the size of a larger watch, comes in bright colors -- orange, yellow, and blue on top of standard black and white -- that make it difficult to interact with inconspicuously, even in the event one wears a nondescript black unit. It is, after all, not designed to be hidden.

"If you're eavesdropping and you're into spy gear," Sarow said, "this isn't a product for you."