Descriptive Camera prints out descriptions of pictures, not pictures themselves

Matt Richardson's "Descriptive Camera" sends your pictures to Amazon's Mechanical Turk and jobs out the task of writing a brief description of each image, then outputs the text on a thermal printer. It's a camera that captures descriptions, not pictures.

The technology at the core of the Descriptive Camera is Amazon's Mechanical Turk API. It allows a developer to submit Human Intelligence Tasks (HITs) for workers on the internet to complete. The developer sets the guidelines for each task and designs the interface for the worker to submit their results. The developer also sets the price they're willing to pay for the successful completion of each task. An approval and reputation system ensures that workers are incented to deliver acceptable results. For faster and cheaper results, the camera can also be put into "accomplice mode," where it will send an instant message to any other person. That IM will contain a link to the picture and a form where they can input the description of the image.

The camera itself is powered by the BeagleBone, an embedded Linux platform from Texas Instruments. Attached to the BeagleBone is a USB webcam, a thermal printer from Adafruit, a trio of status LEDs and a shutter button. A series of Python scripts define the interface and bring together all the different parts from capture, processing, error handling, and the printed output. My mrBBIO module is used for GPIO control (the LEDs and the shutter button), and I used open-source command line utilities to communicate with Mechanical Turk. The device connects to the internet via ethernet and gets power from an external 5 volt source, but I would love to make a another version that's battery operated and uses wireless data. Ideally, The Descriptive Camera would look and feel like a typical digital camera.

Descriptive Camera, 2012 (via Kottke)


  1. He should develop an app or alternative device using the same Mechanical Turk Interface as an aid to visually-impaired people. Images could perhaps be converted to braille or spoken-word.

    Also, is there an Image Quality: Haiku option?

    1. I do like the idea of this providing work for unemployed poets. People could walk around with a camera & get poetry written about their day-to-day.

  2. Will it allow you to delete word photos where it says my eyes were closed?  I wonder if the descriptions get coarse and grainy in low light?

  3. I can’t quite put my finger on it (and it seems to be just me), but I find the whole mechanical turk thing somewhat disquieting. 

    1. It’s not just you.  It’s disturbing because it brings you directly in contact with the sweatshop nature of much of the world’s economy.

  4. “Hey, I know, he can make a voice recorder output a description of what is being said instead of the actual sound!” “Like Dragon Dictation?” “Exactly!” “Dipshit.”

  5. Seriously, though. I don’t think I get it. If it’s art, I freakin love it to pieces. It’s the kind of thing me and my artsy buds did in the late ’80s but a bunch lower tech. If it’s for a practical use, I’m lost.

  6. That’s awesome. You know why? Because it’s a HIT that’s doesn’t feed into a spam network.

  7. To me this seems like it would be much more pratical as a smart phone app rather than its own camera. Does it really need to output a paper copy of the photo? Wouldn’t saving a text description to your phone’s photos be enough?

    I would love to have this as an app.

  8.  I would buy one if it automatically added “You are likely to be eaten by a Grue.” to the end of every description.

  9. Hmm, this has given me an idea for a video version as a way to replace  seeing eye dogs… A pair of video glasses/webcam, and earpiece, and some cheap outsourced labour…

    1. No way. It’d end up like that old kids TV show, Knightmare.

      “You need to go left, right?”
      “Go right? OK!” *falls into pit*

  10. Good to know there are now more ways to use up thermal paper because printing onto thermal paper removes thermals from the atmosphere and fixes global warming! 

  11. You should also look at @textinstagram on Twitter. Not sure if @textinstagram is a piss taking parody or if it Mechanical Turked too.

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