The Evolution of Helmetcam

Saturday, May 28, 2011 19:26 | Filled in Dive Equipment

Author Posing with Helmetcam 3.0

Author Posing with Helmetcam 3.0

A couple years ago I had an idea. I wanted to take one of those small portable extreme sports video cameras and use it underwater as I was scuba diving. Actually, I wanted to mount it to a helmet like the skateboarders, motocross riders, skiers, skydivers and all those other crazy people. The concept of having a hands-free video camera recording everything I was doing was cool. It also had the advantage of being a zero-taskload accessory. It sat on my head and I didn’t have to do a thing.

 

Around this time, a company started advertising a mask that had a built-in video camera.  The Liquid Image mask looked cool, but I did not like the fact that since the camera was built into the mask, I did not have any leeway if the mask was not a good fit.  As we know, masks fit differently on different peoples’ faces.  I have found a mask that fits great on my face, even with my mustache.  This means that my video camera setup had to be helmet mounted.


 

I started to research which helmet would work best.  I discounted the helmets that the extreme sports participants use for two reasons.  1) They usually drop to and below the ears, making it hard to have a mask and mask strap underneath it.  2) They are padded with a lot of shock absorbing foam which is very buoyant.  I was not comfortable playing with an extremely buoyant helmet strapped to my head.  I looked at the types of helmets cave divers use.  They are a pretty resourceful group of people, having to craft a lot of their tools.  They seemed to use helmets that are made for rock climbing and water sports such as kayaking.  An added advantage was that cave divers like to attach things to their helmets also.  They seem to love having 3 or 4 lights tied on their helmets.  Having a video camera attached wouldn’t be that different.

 

Well, after much online research, I discover that even cave divers have trouble finding helmets they like.  Some have helmets over 10 years old because they are not made anymore.  My first experiment utilized a rock climbing helmet.  This specific model was too flimsy, so I moved to a cheaper locally sourced helmet, a construction hard hat from Home Depot.  It was sturdy, had mounts to add a chin strap and was adjustable.  I took my Dremel tool, which every person should own, and cut the visor off, since that would just cause drag while swimming and get in the way.

 

Helmetcam 2.0

Helmetcam 2.0

The next question was which camera I should use.  I did a little more homework and decided to use the ContourHD camera.  It is a nice compact camera with HD capabilities and has a fairly streamline profile.  The one disadvantage is that there was not a commercially available underwater case for it.  I was able to find someone starting to build a case for the camera and received an early model of the H2OV case.  I mounted the case to the side of my helmet and balanced it with a dive light on the other side.  It was somewhat heavy, but it performed well.  I turned the camera on before inserting it into the case and strapped the helmet on my head after putting all my other scuba gear on, including my mask.

 

Author coming up from a dive.  Credit: Brian Jeno

Author coming up from a dive. Credit: Brian Jeno

I took a lot of video with it, including the video of the Fossil Ledge incident in my earlier post.  I looked pretty dorky, according to everyone else, but I just brushed them off, saying that I was setting the new fashion trend in scuba diving.  I don’t think that I am too far off the mark!  By the end of the year, my Contour camera had a mechanical problem and I had to set it aside for a while.  This gave me the opportunity to pause and think about the design and how I could improve it.

 

Author Wearing a Lopsided Helmetcam 2.0

Author Wearing a Lopsided Helmetcam 2.0

The helmet with all the gear on it was too bulky.  Even though it was fairly neutral in water, the acrylic case was thick and heavy.  The light I used to offset that mass used 4 C batteries and added additional mass.  All this weight made the helmet slide on my head a bit, making my videos crooked at times.  The other problem with the helmet is that my camera was mounted at forehead level on the helmet.  To have the camera shoot what I was looking at, I had to point it down and inwards.  This made its line of sight cross mine at a predetermined location.  I tried to make it about 4 feet in front of me.  The means, that depending on how far out the subject was, it was not centered in the camera’s field of view.  The weight of the helmet with the gear attached to it, caused it to slide forwards or backwards on my head depending on the scenario, making the centering of the subject even harder.

 

I started giving the GoPro video camera a second look.  It was small, and more importantly, it came with a waterproof case that was made of polycarbonate instead of acrylic.  This means that the plastic was thinner and lighter.  In addition, the case was molded to the form of the camera, reducing the bulk.  As a small bonus, the case comes with the camera as part of the standard package.  I turned the camera down, initially, because I did not believe that it had as streamlined a profile as the Contour camera.  But, in reality, the exposed frontal surface area in both cameras, when they are in their respective cases, is almost identical.  Another issue with the GoPro camera is that the default port on the underwater case is a curved piece of plastic that does not allow the camera to focus well underwater due to the diffraction.  GoPro is aware of the situation and looking at a fix.  In the meantime, there are several third parties on the Internet offering a solution.

 

Author Wearing Helmetcam 3.0 for Pool Test

Author Wearing Helmetcam 3.0 for Pool Test

Recently, I purchased the GoPro HD camera on sale at Best Buy.  It was on sale and I had some ideas to improve Helmetcam using it.  The first thing I liked about the GoPro is the way that it is mounted.  There are articulating arms that you can add to the mount to extend the camera away from the mounting point and orient it to any direction that you wish.  With this system, I can drop the camera below the helmet to make it closer to eye level.  This provides a much better point of view for aiming the camera.  The other feature that I like is the size and weight of the camera in its case.  With such a light camera, positioning the helmet and keeping it level will be much easier.  For the time being, I have decided to forgo the light since there is minimal balancing needed.  I might add the light later to have a hands-free light source dedicated to the video.

 

I have to adjust the position of the camera a little bit, to push it further from my head and mask, which is getting in the side of the frame.  This will take some more mounting arms to extend the camera and add some more articulation.  I am quite pleased with the results so far, even though the video is currently out of focus, as expected.  I have the Oculus R5 replacement lens on the way and I  will post new video when it is installed.

 

Camera on a Pole

Camera on a Pole

I am also very pleased with the results of my version of a polecam.  I purchased an aluminum pole (used for cleaning) from Home Depot along with an attachment that I modified to attach the GoPro tripod mount.  I cut the pole to a useful length and added the handle and tripod mount to the two ends.  The camera can articulate on the end of the pole to take video in front of me or turned around for a view of the diver.  I believe this will be very handy to get closer to things that I would not otherwise be able to approach.

 

Overall, I like the new setup and I cannot wait to try it out in the ocean on my next dives.  I expect to have some pretty cool video to go along with the pictures that I am taking of my dives.  Of course, all this work has me thinking about modifications already and I would not be surprised to see a post on Helmetcam 3.1 sometime in the near future!

 

-Frank

 

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2 Comments to The Evolution of Helmetcam

  1. Launch says:

    July 21st, 2011 at 5:16 pm

    Hey Frank,

    Nice post. There are lots of options for good underwater cameras, with GoPro being only 1 of many. Check out this comparison I just posted which pairs a GoPro up with a Contour 1080 -> http://vimeo.com/26734892

    The relatively flat lens on the contour makes for a little bit of a better focus, and in terms of waterproofing, they are nearly identical (60meters).

  2. fyue says:

    July 25th, 2011 at 10:35 am

    I have a Contour, as mentioned, but size and mass-wise, the GoPro is better suited. One of the main problems with my Contour case is that it is acrylic, instead of polycarbonate, making it much bulkier. I modified the GoPro case lens, replacing the stock lens with a flat one, improving the GoPro underwater focus tremendously.

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