The eternal sunshine of the Google Clips

Commentary: Google's newest automatic camera is an echo of memory-recording promises made before.

Scott Stein Editor at Large
I started with CNET reviewing laptops in 2009. Now I explore wearable tech, VR/AR, tablets, gaming and future/emerging trends in our changing world. Other obsessions include magic, immersive theater, puzzles, board games, cooking, improv and the New York Jets. My background includes an MFA in theater which I apply to thinking about immersive experiences of the future.
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  • Nearly 20 years writing about tech, and over a decade reviewing wearable tech, VR, and AR products and apps
Scott Stein
4 min read
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Our first take of the Google Clips, the newest self-proclaimed automatic camera that promises to be there for the moments you might miss, struck a chord with me. The device is the latest camera designed to surreptitiously record things in your life -- to remember in case you don't.

I get the attraction of having that handled digitally, because I feel like my memories are fading.

Does that always happen to everyone? It's distressing. I worry about forgetting moments. I keep old high school friends in my Facebook feed. I'm a hoarder. Papers from my childhood still sit stacked in my parents' basement like sedimentary layers.

That's why the Clips and similar "digital memory" products have always tempted me. It's why I leave Apple's Live Photos turned on, even as it fills up my phone's limited storage space: I'm afraid some key moment before or after the "real" snapshot will be lost to the sands of time. I don't delete my old photos I take -- they just pile up, in ridiculous numbers. Same with my notes, my messages. I take a lot of photos already, mostly on my phone. I worry about my kids growing up, not having enough memories.

Shot by someone else on a Google Clips. These aren't my memories.

Vanessa Hand Orellana/CNET

It's a bit of a dysfunction.

The Google Clips put me in mind of a similar product -- with a nearly identical name -- that I reviewed four years ago: the Narrative Clip. At the time, it made me think about my digital memories, or "lifebits," as researcher Gordon Bell called them in his book "Total Recall." He envisioned the future of lifelogging at Microsoft Research Silicon Valley Laboratory, engaging in an attempt to digitize and code all the bits of his life.


Me with the Narrative Clip, four years ago.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Today, we're all lifebits. I have tweets going back a decade. I have photos and comments on Facebook that get served up to me as memories by Facebook that I wake up to some mornings. I don't remember the moments, usually. I repost them, thinking maybe they'll be served up to me again someday. My photos are backed up on several services, and two of them -- Google and Apple -- consolidate moments into "memories," making videos, adding soundtracks.

My stuff is all over the place. My memories, my photos, my movies, my books. Digital pieces lie in different services, fragmented. Some of my old files I haven't touched in decades -- like Microsoft Word docs -- can't be converted automatically, it'd take some work. I never converted all the home VHS movies my dad made of me and my family and left to us when he passed away. Years ago, I lost physical things to a flood. I don't want to lose more. But it happens, even when it's digital.

The Google Clips doesn't even aim to be an always-on camera: It's designed for automatically recording specific sessions. Maybe a birthday party. Maybe that family Thanksgiving. A day at the beach. A vacation. A lazy Sunday.

If I were to have a camera that records all the time, would it even be what I need? In the past, it wasn't. I wore the Google Glass and the Snap Spectacles, and felt like I was throwing a layer on top of my life (or, my vision). The Narrative Clip, a nearly identical proposition to the Google Clips on the surface, but with a focus on continuous photo-taking, was recording a memory every handful of seconds. I ended up with thousands of random photos, and eventually I lost them all.

The Google Clips can be snapped on, but it's not always recording. It is, however, deciding when to record, and what. I haven't tested it, but my colleague Sean Hollister has. As he said,

"If a man wearing a Google hat walked up to me and offered footage of my child's first steps for $250, I'd pay him without a second thought. But I wouldn't trust the Google Clips with that once-in-a-lifetime moment -- and that's my review in a nutshell."

And that's my take, too, based on every moment I've ever experienced when I tried to do too many things at once to record a moment. Memories and moments are fleeting. I grab one camera: the camera I trust. For me it's my phone. For others, it's a DSLR. Maybe, for you, it could be an automatic camera. I wouldn't dream of it, though. And as a "backup memory recorder," I'd never bother to set it up.

James Martin/CNET

Clips are designed to stay local, private, not upload automatically. But then, I'd just end up with a lot more shots to sift through. And I wouldn't delete them, I know I wouldn't. I'm a hoarder. I hang onto everything. And if I could remember everything forever, what would that even look like?

I need to choose what I'm looking at, and also what I remember. I want to frame my shots. I want to purposefully record memories. I'm worried, with more information available to save, even with improving AI, I'll be increasingly less likely to know what to value.

Google's memory-recording optimism isn't new. It's tempting. It's my fantasy, to keep a time capsule of everything, always.

And, once again, it probably isn't for me.