Switched On: A Looxcie into lifecasting's future

Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about consumer technology.

Remember those early wireless headsets, the ones that made people look like they had been assimilated by The Borg? Few would seek to return to those days for the benefit of bridging a handset and one's ears. But what if one could also bridge a handset and one's eyes? That's essentially the promise of Looxcie, a Bluetoooth headset that integrates a video camera to enable passive video capture.

Looxcie's creators note that using the device requires less encumbrance than even a Flip camcorder. Still, there's no getting around it -- the Looxcie is no spy gadget. Accepting the state of the technology for what it is, the designers chose to embrace its size rather than try to minimize it. The protuberance that houses the boom mike and lens of the product swells toward an end that includes a red recording light. The extension in a glossy white, perhaps an homage to massive telephoto zoom lenses like those from Canon.

The Looxcie, though, cannot zoom (even digitally). It can, though, rotate about 10 degrees clockwise or counterclockwise to compensate for the position of the head, which can make for both a solid stabilizer and finicky focal source. Despite its large size, the Looxcie is reasonably comfortable, although positioning it so that the camcorder is capturing what you're seeing while keeping the earpiece in your ear can be tricky.

The Looxcie is also a Bluetooth audio headset, and works in tandem with the screen of the smartphone to create a a kind of "DLR" (Digital Life Recorder). The generally well-designed Looxcie software maintains a cache of everything that you're watching as long as the camcorder is turned on. And just like most DVRs have an "instant replay" feature, you can save an instant clip by pressing a button on the underside of the camera. The Looxcie software can e-mail these clips or post them to YouTube or Facebook, and the whole cache can be sent to a PC for further editing.

While the size and prominence of the Looxcie hardware will certainly make it a nonstarter for many, video quality is actually a bigger obstacle -- capture tops out at about 10 frames per second. This is no doubt in part a limitation of the Bluetooth connection between the headset and the phone. Perhaps Looxcie could improve video quality by recording its cache and clips to a microSD card in the headset, and send clips to the phone after a short delay. As it stands now, however, Looxcie embodies a number of paradoxes. It is intended to capture spontaneity, but the stigma of its size disincentives use. And it allows you to capture that which you normally couldn't, but at quality that you normally wouldn't.

Still, one can see a few uses for Looxcie. These might include capturing events where the audio is generally more important than the video -- say, a lecture or conference panel. Another is where you expect something to happen but you don't know when, such as the whale-watching cliche where everyone misses the animal cresting (although even here one would get better results just mounting something like a Kodak PlaySport to a railing). Then there's capturing adventures in casual sports, in which Looxcie can be an alternative to active sports cams like those from Contour that generally need to be mounted on a helmet or other gear.

Of course, one of Looxcie's real strengths is its ability to upload clips in nearly real-time, where the low quality of its clips translates into faster uploads. It makes YouTube a truer extension of "you" and sends video to Facebook directly from your face. Once upon a time, cell phones and even digital cameras captured QVGA stills. As Looxcie's video gets better and its profile gets smaller, it could become a viable tool for capturing those ephemeral moments that would otherwise be lost.

Ross Rubin is executive director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On are his own.