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LENA: Baby's Verbal LifeLog

LENA (Language Environment Analysis) is a product that captures up to 16 hours of your child's aural environment. The device takes that material and then evaluates it to check your child's exposure to verbal stimulation, and provides a measure of your child's language use.

Technovelgy readers are familiar with the idea of a lifelog; a device that you can hang around your neck to take pictures at regular intervals of whatever you are seeing. The concept and device were originally developed by DARPA in 2003. DARPA eventually canceled it, in part due to privacy concerns.

Microsoft also got into the act; their SenseCam was a device designed to take pictures at a regular interval. (The Momenta PC is a much more attractive concept.)

The military wanted to develop the LifeLog for intelligence-gathering purposes. The stated intent was "to be able to trace the 'threads' of an individual's life in terms of events, states, and relationships."

It sounds like a blue-sky kind of project; however, it appears that the SenseCam Seems To Help Dementia Patients. By briefly reviewing what they had seen over the course of the day, people with mild dementia were better able to orient themselves and answer questions about what they did that day. In other words, regular use appeared to improve recall.

It appears that the trick is not to gather the information, but to try to make sense of it and to use it. This proved to be the case for the LENA child language device as well.

The company’s engineers soon found that conventional speech-recognition software was not up to the task. The sounds a baby might encounter — a raspy grandparent, a TV commercial, a sibling’s chatter — were simply too varied to analyze successfully. The best solution, it seemed, was to eschew the identification of particular words and focus on a recording’s acoustic features. Modeling every conceivable sound in a household, they designed a system that distinguishes different voices from one another, gives a rough count of the number of words directed at a child and counts also the number of conversational “turns” that are taken as child and interlocutor exchange words.

On the basis of recordings from 314 families, Infoture engineers claim that the number of conversational turns and the entropy measure track closely with language ability as determined by speech professionals. Children with diagnosed language delays, for example, have lower entropy scores than children of a similar age who are developing normally.

I'm just trying to imagine the legal nightmare of dozens of kids in elementary schools with various devices hung around their necks. You'd want GPS, of course; you can get good information by seeing where your child wanders on the playground and how long she stays there. You'd want to measure the time and quality of interactions with teachers and other children. Just imagine trying to get permission from all those people to record their likeness and words.

Perhaps those of us who value their privacy will want an anti-LifeLog - a device that sends out an electronic signal to all LifeLog-style devices that states that we do not wish to be photographed or otherwise recorded.

Read more about LENA - Language Environment Analysis and check out the LENA Research Language Environment Analysis Systems website.

Scroll down for more stories in the same category. (Story submitted 2/24/2008)

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