Saturday, June 12, 2010

Looking for a helmet/bike cam

With some local and national incidents on the road, my interest in a helmet/bike video cam has peaked recently.  In addition to documenting some cool rides, using footage for online cue sheets, and some random stuff, I'd like to use the camera as evidence in the event of a collision, near miss, or harassment.  If you have not seen these incidents, the video has proven helpful in some collisions or near collisions ...

Some thought, research, and conversation led to the following video cam characteristics to target.

1. waterproof
2. small and lightweight
3. use commercially available memory and batteries
4. take footage for several hours
5. shockproof ... the ability to take steady footage when being shaken
6. robust enough for cycling
7. have mounts for helmets, handlebars, and so on
8. take video sharp enough for license plates

Now, I still have yet to decide whether to mount it on the bike or a helmet.  Mounting it on a helmet will help steady the cam during rides and reflect what I see.  However, I suspect that a lot of people look away when they are going to be hit or hit something such that some important scenes would be missed.  Also, having stuff mounted on your body naturally gets a little tiresome; but if it is light enough then it is probably ignorable.  There are a few standard cameras with video capacity, but appear to be a little too fragile for regular outdoor use.  Moreover finding helmet mounts for regular cameras appears to have its own issues.

I began with looking at ...

Tachyon XC Micro
Drift X170

    Both are reasonably priced and satisfy #1-7.  The Drift also has a LCD screen that allows you to view your shots immediately, a wider lens (which is good and bad), and more mounts.  It also costs a bit more.  However, I determined that while their resolution is excellent for a lot of purposes -- 720x480 -- from a few examples on the web it became clear that one would be unable to reliably get license plates and other fine details.  Below is a screen capture at 720p posted by a Bikeforums.Net member CyciumX.

    As you can see, the license plate of this truck on a 50 mph speed limit road can be read.  Based on comparisons between 480p and 720p, I think that this is the minimum resolution needed to identify plates unless the traffic is going relatively slow.  Note that I also looked at "super resolution" programs that borrow power across multiple shots of the same object to form a single high-resolution image.  Most are some sort of compilable code in C(+), Matlab, and so on.  There is a commercial product with good reviews named Photo Acute.  At this stage of my life, I think that the easiest way of getting higher resolution photos is to simply get a better video cam.  For a frame of reference, in early June 2010, I could find the two for $130-160 from Amazon.  

    I evaluated the following HD cameras ...

    Contour HD (1080p)
    Go Pro HD
    Drift HD170
      Literally, the Drift HD170 was announced earlier in the week and should be available July 10.  Assuming that the Drift lives up to its specs, the short story is that any of the three cameras are more than acceptable.  The Drift is the only one with a zoom function, remote control, and LCD screen that lets one view shots immediately.  It can also take 5 Megapixel still photos.  The Contour HD gets praise for its easy use and laser guide to line up shots; although it does not take photos and is limited to only 16 GB of memory.  The Drift and Go Pro have a 32 GB capacity.  The Go Pro HD also takes 5 Megapixel still photos and lots of accessories.  But the only way to check your camera alignment is to take your shot, download it to a computer, and verify that you have the right perspective.  

      At this point, I think that waiting for the Drift HD -- and perhaps a drop in price -- makes the most sense for me since I'm not in a rush.  But I'm hoping that more information comes out and could easily change my mind.  As of July 12, the Go Pro HD and Contour HD 1080p is available for $250 and $300 respectively.  Note that Contour also has another HD model with a maximum 720p resolution instead of 1080p which one can purchase for less than $200 at Amazon with a bonus $50 Amazon gift certificate.  The Drift HD has a retail price of $320.


      Here is a comparison of the Go Pro HD and the Drift X170

      Here are some informative threads on Bikeforums.Net