I have a history; you might even call it a habit, of backing Kickstarter projects with the potential to ease the troubles of modern life. As it looks I am not the only one interested in life-hacking gadgets, my Life-Sparring round reviewing “The World’s Best Travel Jacket” (also a Kickstarter purchase) is by far the most popular article to date.
My newest Kickstarter acquisition is a little box called Monument. The promise of the Monument campaign was nothing less than creating “The world's smartest photo storage and management device.” While that claim admittedly sounded a bit overambitious, the idea resonated with me. With a notebook hard drive regularly at the capacity limit and an ever-growing number of mobile phone pictures, I need a solution to store and back-up my photo collection. This article has been updated, May 1st, 2017, please scroll to the bottom to see the update.
More Memories than Memory
I entered the age of digital photography in autumn 2003 when I bought a Toshiba PDR-M700 zoom camera while being on my exchange semester in Japan. Since then the number of digital pictures taken in a year went up exponentially, reaching new heights with the acquisition of an Olympus DSLR in 2008 and going completely off the charts when I got my first iPhone in 2012 (I was a late adopter, starting with 4). Nowadays I shoot about 8,000 to 10,000 pictures a year, creating an annual data volume of 25 to 30 gigabytes.
Usually, I keep all pictures on my private notebook, sorted in folders by year and subfolders for bigger trips or events. However, mid of last year I reached the capacity of my 500-gigabyte hard drive.
Monument – An Idea with Life-Hacking Potential
The proposal of Monument sounded convincing: A hardware-based solution that does not store the pictures on a cloud-based server (remember the iCloud nude leak?) and uses the home Wi-Fi to automatically backup images from multiple devices instead? Also, intelligent algorithms to find faces and sort the flood of pictures by various criteria like location, time, camera; even allowing a simple keyword search for “snow,” “mountain” or “sea”? An enticing proposition even at the price tag of US$ 109 + shipping for an early unit.
5028 other backers shared my enthusiasm for Monument and funded the campaign with US$ 703,818 US$.
As we all know by now, Kickstarter campaigns are not dissimilar to election campaigns: often they fail to deliver on the initial promises and timelines are at best a rough indicator when the finished product can be expected.
Monument was originally scheduled for delivery in September. I received my unit on December 5th; by crowdfunding standards an unspectacular delay. Shipping was by Hong Kong post and took merely a day, as Monument’s fulfillment center is based in Hong Kong too.
First Impression – A Typical Kickstarter Experience?
The unboxing was unspectacular. A nicely designed box in a warm yellow contains a little thank you card to Kickstarter backers, a very basic owner’s manual, a quick reference card outlining the installation process, the Monument unit itself and nested inside a power supply with an exchangeable plug (UK, Australia). That is it, Monument ships without an HDMI cable which you need to follow the progress of the initial installation on your TV and comes without memory. To be able to use your Monument, you need to purchase one or two external USB hard drives and plug them into your box.
The design of the Monument unit is straight forward. It is a plastic cube in anthracite (I have the version that includes Ethernet, the Wi-Fi version has a slightly different color) with rounded corners and an embossed logo on top. The front side has a multi-color LED used to show the status of the device and an SD-card slot. The back is partly open, with room to stack two 40 mm x 83 mm x 120 mm external USB hard drives and features the plug connection for the power cable, the Ethernet port, and two USB 2.0 ports. Noticeable is the absence of an on/off button.
To get Monument to work, I first had to download the iPhone App (currently, there is an App for iOS and Android), provide an email address (for the recovery code), connect the unit to the TV (via HDMI) and to a hard drive (I opted for a 2 TB Seagate Backup Plus), before powering the unit. As the initial connection between phone and Monument is made via Bluetooth, BT has to be enabled on the phone. Upon starting the App, the phone tried immediately to connect to the unit, unfortunately unsuccessful.Multiple reboots later I wrote to the support forum and within half an hour received the suggestion to update iOS to the newest version. This solved the connection problem.
Next step was the automatic firmware update, and unfortunately, I hit the next roadblock, my unit froze during the installation process and did not fully install the firmware.
I hit the support forum again, and this time it took about an hour before I got the reply that the issue was on Monuments side and they had uploaded a faulty firmware update. This issue was solved when I made a new try on the next day.
This time everything worked as it should. The unit updated the firmware, and I could follow the progress on the TV screen. Upon installation, I activated the automatic upload option in the phone app and confirmed to use the connected hard drive as a back-up. The phone immediately started to back-up my pictures to Monument.
Just when I thought that now I could dive into testing the smart features the importing stopped and showed "Analyzing - 3474 pictures left". As it looked, the Monument app synced the majority of my pictures with the unit and then somehow got stuck processing the information.
If I now go to "browse tab" where usually the magic of the AI should happen, I see empty folders. No World Map, no Time Machine, only the face recognition worked through a part of the imported pictures, with very mixed results. The face selection shows at least 50 separate versions of me, often just with one or two imagines linked to each pattern. I know my weight is fluctuating, but my face somehow stayed fairly recognizable over the past two years. The AI also spotted faces in lonely everyday objects like a toilet (don't ask me why I have a picture of a toilet on my phone).
The most anticipated feature, the keyword search only recognized very few pictures. "Seaside" shows nine pictures, 5 of them showing water.
This time it took two days for the Support team to reply to my post. They found the problem that causes the freeze during analyzing and will fix it with the next update to the phone apps.
How smart is the World’s smartest Photo Storing Device?
This question is difficult to answer. At the current stage, Monument is the combination of a decorative plastic cube with Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity and an App that duplicated my pictures and takes a 7.5 GB of my phone storage.
As a Kickstarter Backer, I am prepared to expect an unfinished product, and I am to some degree willing to be part of the improvement process. The experience with Monument was stretching the limits of my monk-like patience, though.
I can only hope that the idea of the smart photo storing device will come alive with the forthcoming app and firmware updates.
The very rocky start leaves me not very optimistic for the future of the product, though. While the customer service team tries to do their best to reply to the inquiries, the development team seems to be way over their head, rushing the first version of the product out with major bugs.
I currently would not recommend to head to the Monument website and purchase Monument for $129.99 (Wi-Fi) respectively $ 149.99 (Wi-Fi + Ethernet).
Update – May 1, 2017: A lot of Progress, but still a long way to go
For quite some time I wanted to provide an update to this article, as my conclusion in the initial review has been pretty damning. Since early December 2016, the Monument firmware and the iOS App have seen several updates and there were a lot of improvements to the product.
It took until the end of January, to fix the biggest glitches and to turn Monument into something more than a brick with a decorative Led.
Since then the software is stable and the phone uploads all pictures were taken, once the connection to Monument via Wi-Fi is established. Monument fulfills at least its function as an automatic back-up for all pictures taken with my mobile phone.
The highly anticipated, artificial intelligence powered ways to organize, categorize and search pictures, however, leave a lot to be desired. The most useful feature to search for pictures is currently the World Map, introduced through an update in February. But sorting photos by their geotag is not exactly rocket science.
The face recognition remains unimproved and produces partly hilarious results. Pictures of me (from the last three years) are split into more than 50 different buckets. I know that I have occasional bad hair days, but with that many looks I should consider becoming a secret agent.
I also had pictures without a human at all recognized as “face” and in a few cases the software seemed refreshingly undiscriminating, being blind to gender, race and age. Without a serious overhaul, Monuments face recognition is a far cry behind Facebook’s abilities to match faces.
The highly-anticipated search function by topics, such as mountain or sea is not much better than the face recognition. The pre-defined search for “seaside” for example produces 99 pictures of which 41 show water bodies of any kind. The rest of the photos contain snow, mountains, grass, a running track or for example clouds. I never was expecting the small team of Monument Labs to match the firepower of technology giants as Google or Facebook. For the advantage of having a control of my privacy, I was willing to put up with less functionality, but at the current state Monuments AI looks more like a student project than a serious competitor to the big players.
While it looks as if Monument Labs bit more off than it could chew when it comes to sophisticated AI, it ignored simple features that would make the product far more useful, for example a very simple filter by date range and location. If I were able to look for a geotag and a date range, I would be able to find most my pictures. In the absence of any useful filter or search, Monument is like a black box for pictures back-ups.
While there were updates in the last five months, I still would not recommend to fork out US$ 149 plus shipping for a unit in the current state.