Baby-cam captures an infant’s world

AND WE’RE ROLLING  The baby-cam, modeled here by the 3-month-old son of study coauthor Margaret Moulson of Ryerson University, is hidden in the left eye of the smiley face, which is upside down to bring the camera closer to the infant’s eyes.

N.A. Sugden et al/Developmental Psychobiology 2013

If you’re curious about what your cat sees all day, you can strap a cat-cam to its collar. The tiny video camera assumes the vantage point of the cat as it swishes through tall grass, sits at the window and laps up water. These cameras aren’t just for kitties, either. The artist Sam Easterson has used the tiny head-mounted cameras to capture the perspectives of turkeys, tarantulas, buffalo, armadillos and even a wayward tumbleweed.

So it seems funny to me that no one had thought to slap a head camera on a newborn baby. Luckily, researchers from Ryerson University in Toronto are on it. Nicole Sugden and colleagues recently developed the arguably cutest cam in existence: a happy face camera affixed to a headband for tiny little babies. “While we had parents’ perspectives on what infants are exposed to, we didn’t have any idea about what the world looked like from an infant perspective,” Sugden says.

Their study, published in November in Developmental Psychobiology, recorded the first-person perspectives of 14 1-month-old babies and 16 3-month-old babies for two weeks. Parents were asked to put the headbands on the infants whenever Baby was awake and not fussy.

Compared with a tumbleweed’s thrilling existence, much of the baby footage was pretty boring: changing, feeding and playing. But these mundane moments were occasionally punctuated with excitement: The baby goes out to dinner in a restaurant! The baby drops in to see her sister’s recital! The baby hits the library! These cameras caught it all, amassing an impressive collection of people pulling hilarious faces to make babies smile. Some scenes suggested that the families forgot the cameras were rolling. Judging from some questionable attire choices, Sugden suspects that some moms forgot to tell the dads when the cameras were on.

After the footage made it back to Ryerson University, the scientists noticed that of many of these different scenes had a common element that loomed large in the infants’ field of vision: faces. Babies spent a whopping quarter of their time in the presence of a face, the researchers found. In contrast, adults are exposed to real faces only about 7 or 8 percent of their time (T.V., Facebook and billboard faces didn’t count), Sugden says.

Most of the faces belonged to adult women of the same race as the baby, usually the mother. Notable exceptions came from babies with older brothers, a baby with a really involved father and one baby boy who spent marathon sessions gazing at himself soothingly in mirrors. (This little guy’s own face accounted for more than 90 percent of his face-viewing time.)

This extensive face gazing probably helps babies perceive faces better. And not just any faces. Babies are born pretty good at discerning a wide variety of faces. But as they get older, babies lose this general ability through a process called perceptual tuning. Through their experience with their environment and caregivers, babies learn that some faces are more important than others, and focus their attention on them. This process makes them worse at discriminating features on faces they rarely see. 

Sugden and her colleagues think that the faces they caught on their baby-cams are probably tuning these infants’ brains, keying them in to features on familiar faces, a skill that ultimately comes at the expense of perceiving other faces. It would be interesting to know how these babies ultimately fare, and whether the babies who saw a more diverse crowd of faces had different perceptual tuning effects later on.

Beyond faces, there’s no telling what else these baby-cams could detect. The baby-cams could capture how language skills relate to the vocabulary a baby hears, how allergies relate to pet exposure, how motor skills relate to time spent rolling around on the floor. And parents themselves might want in on the action. “Outside of science, parents could actually do this themselves to get a glimpse of their baby’s view of the world,” Sugden says. “I would imagine it being a nifty addition to anyone’s baby book.”

Laura Sanders is the neuroscience writer. She holds a Ph.D. in molecular biology from the University of Southern California.

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