September 2008

Cheap Helmet Camera Options (September 2008)

Summary: IMHO, the best cheap options are
  1. adding an external camera to an existing camcorder, if you are lucky enough to own a camcorder with an AV input jack.
  2. A selection of choices from aiptek
  3. FlyCamOne2
  4. ATC2K or ATC3K

Disclaimer: Things are changing fast. If this document is a year old, you might as well assume it's mostly out of date.

There are plenty of systems available for mounting a camera on your helmet. Just google, and you can spend $500 to $1000 on a system that should do a great job (although there are probably also rip-offs at that level that do a poor job). These systems generally consist of a bullet camera and a separate video recorder (usually a pocket dvr or pocket media player with dvr capabilities). You can try to find the cheapest combo yourself, but many of the cheaper choices are still up in the $200 to $300 range. I've listed some choices here that are considerably less.

The technology involved has become steadily cheaper in the past few years. Imaging chips, and chipsets that convert video streams into MPEG-4 and other formats are widely available and inexpensive. Battery technology is improving - more storage in smaller spaces for less money. And most importantly, flash storage prices have truly plummeted. It's frustrating that there's no good cheap off-the-shelf solution. But we are getting there.

What am I looking for? I want full VGA (640x480) at 30 frames per second. And I want to be able to record that video for at least an hour, prefereably longer. I'm willing to put up with some video shearing. More on that in a sidebar. Note that for this application, there's no need for a display screen. You can't see a screen that's on your helmet, and even if you could see it elsewhere, you probably shouldn't be looking at it anyway. Note that these choices may also work well for mounting on bicycles directly, or motorcycles or skis or whatever, but I haven't focused on that.

Video Shear

It may also be called a frame buffering problem, or progressive-scan artifacting or other things. It's a problem that exists in all video equipment, but the more expensive you go, the harder it is to spot. The problem is that it is impossible to grab an entire video frame all at once. You have to read out an image one pixel at a time, or at least one line at a time. This means that the top of the frame is imaged earlier than the bottom of the frame. The cheaper (in quality) the camera, the bigger the difference. An expensive camera will read a frame at high speed, and store it in high-speed memory (a frame buffer), and then write from the frame buffer to the permanent storage. A cheaper camera will do this more slowly, and a very cheap camera may skip the frame buffer entirely, reading the camera one line at a time and feeding the unbuffered lines to the encoding electronics.

Video shear can be seen in side-to-side motion as a slanting of the image. Vertical lines will appear to tilt, and the faster the motion the more tilt will be seen. Squares become parallelograms. In a very good camera you'll hardly notice it, and in a very cheap camera it's blatantly obvious. Up and down motion also causes video shear. In this case, the image is stretched or scrunched, and you can get an effect where the video looks as though it is on a waving flag. This effect is generally less obvious, and is only noticeable in the cheapest cameras or high vibration situtations.

This YouTube video made with an ATC2K on a motorcycle shows wobble in the image from vibration just when standing still. This one shows really nasty up-and-down shearing, again an ATC2K on a motorcycle. While these videos pick on the ATC2K, ALL of the cameras here (ATC2K/3K, FlyCamOne2, and all Aiptek models listed here) have been reported to suffer from at least some video shear problems.

Video shear is an important issue for helmet cameras, because there's likely to be a lot of camera motion and some vibration. If you can't tolerate some video shear, quit reading this article, and find an article about expensive helmet cameras.

The ideal solution would be a small light self-contained unit no bigger than a typical "bullet" or "lipstick" camera, that has removable storage, battery, camera, and electronics all in one unit. That's still a bit small to pack all that in cheaply.


A Bird in Hand

The "cheapest" choice is to strap anything you already own onto your head. This could be a camcorder, or a digital camera with video capabilities. This is often a bad idea for a few reasons. First is the weight and bulk of your camera probably makes it difficult to strap onto your head. Once you get all that weight on the top or side of your helmet, it tends to pull your helmet off your head. If you mount the camera on one side, you can counterweight the other side. This is a heavy set up. Vibration and proper aiming also become a bigger problem.

Another problem is that the camera you have might be a tape camera, which is not the best choice. Vibration and shaking can influence the recording, and even damage the camera mechanisms. Solid state systems are now viable, and avoid these problems. To be fair, you can almost always get away with using a tape system, it's just not the ideal choice.

And finally, this is only the cheapest solution as long as you don't crash and destroy the camera, or have it fall off the helmet and destroy the camera. Then you are out one camera that you probably used for other things. One of the main purposes of this article is to avoid this.

A Lucky Bird

The second cheapest choice also involves using whatever you have lying around. But it only works if what you have lying around happens to be a video camera with A/V input. If you have that, then you simply need to buy a separate bullet camera or board camera or small security camera that you can plug in.

Again, there's still that risk of destroying your existing video camera. But you can put the external camera on your helmet, and tuck the expensive camera into a backpack where it's much safer, and you can try to package it in a way that protects it (wrap it in foam or something). So still no guarantees, but this is a significant improvement, and in many ways a nearly ideal setup. And, very inexpensive. You can probably find the external camera for as little as $40 bucks. Mabye even less. You will also need to provide some sort of power supply to the external camera.

Off The Shelf

The $99 FlyCamOne2 is a device that's designed for use in radio-controlled vehicles (cars, airplanes). It's the smallest choice here, smaller (but thicker) than a business card (3" x 1.5" x 0.55"), and has a camera that can be rotated to suit different mounting options. It has no full-screen display, and it uses a lithium battery that's recharged through the USB interface. It can be wired with an external recording switch, and can also take photos instead of video (also from the external switch). The downsides are first, it's 25 frames per second, not 30. I think this is PAL video, rather than NTSC. It bothers me, but if it doesn't bother you, this may be your choice. Also, they claim 30 minutes of recording on a 2Gig SD card (which is the maximum). At those numbers, they're not using a very good compression method (reportedly, motion JPEG (which is NOT MPEG) stored in AVI files). You might need a high-speed SD card to work properly with these cameras too. I don't have information on the battery time, but the 220 mAH lithium cell is probably designed to provide enough battery for those 30 minutes and not much more. The battery is built-in, which means whenever it does run out, you're out of business for a while. If they come out with a FlyCamOne3 that does 30 fps, and allows for longer recording times (MPEG4, more storage, and better battery) all at the same price, this would be an excellent solution. But some may find this the best solution as is.

For just a little more ($120 or $150 respectively) you can get the ATC2k or ATC3k from Oregon Scientific. This is an all-in-one solution designed to be used as a helmet camara. It has no display, and is a tube shaped camera with optional mounting brackets or straps. It uses 2 AA batteries, which gives you the option of having spare sets ready to go. It's 4.25" x 1.75" in diameter, and 2.25" due to them mounting clip.

I've seen some videos of these mounted to motorcycles, where the vibration causes very bad, very obvious video shearing. The reviews of this camera also talk a lot about wavy or wobbly video also. I can't say for sure if it's actually worse in this camera than in any of the other solutions I talk about here, because I haven't seen any side-by-side comparisons. But it may be the achilles heel of these cameras. They do seem to be durable though - there's a YouTube video of one that was launched on a rocket, but fell off, and plummeted 1900 feet and survived. It landed in grass, but still - wow.

It also claims to store one hour on a 2Gig card. But it reportedly also uses the same Motion JPEG AVI format as the FlyCamOne2. This implies that it uses higher compression, and this may impact the quality. But again, I haven't seen a side-by-side comparison. The ATC3K allows up to 4Gig storage cards (instead of the 2Gig max in the ATC2K), and has a somewhat wider angle lens.

There's a similar product for about $150 from Epic Sports that I haven't looked at very closely.

Aiptek offers a number of inexpensive digital video cameras that can fit the bill. They aren't as small a form factor, or as perfectly suited to helmet mounting, but they're ok for mounting on the side of the helmet. They all have a tall flat shape with the camera at the top - sort of like a pistol but the lens (the gun barrel) is no longer than the grip. The cheapest of these and the smallest is the ISDV2+ for as low as $60 new. This can hold up to 4Gig (SD cards), uses 2 AA batters which reportedly last 3 hours for alkaline. It records at 30 frames per second 640x480, and can allegedly store almost three hours on 2Gig. This seems high. It does use very efficient MPEG-4 compression (in asf files), but at those rates I suspect it's either a typo, or there may be some quality issues in it's compression, especially since other Aiptek models that use MPEG-4 claim considerably less video in the same storage space. At 3.3" x 2.8" x 1.4", it's generally smaller than the ATC2K/3K, but is in a less useful vertical shape. It also claims to have digital stabilization (as do all aiptek models here), but it's hard to tell how useful that really is. Reviews say it doesn't seem to change much, and the camera still suffers from some video shear.

Next up for $80 is the MPVR-3. This is slightly taller than the ISDV2+ but a bit thinner (4.2" x 2.6" x 1.25"), and it only holds 2Gig cards, not 4Gig. And it uses li-ion instead of AAs (but you can buy extras and swap them out). It otherwise has the same features. The really big benefit you gain from this system is that it has an A/V in jack. This makes it about the cheapest pocket DVR that can record full VGA video at 30 frames per second. So it IS a standalone $80 solution that is possible to side-mount on your helmet, but it ALSO lets you upgrade to a bullet-cam on a wire (you'll need an external power supply for that too). This makes this an excellent choice.

And they also have the DV-5800 for $120. This is very similar to the MPVR-3. It has a 4Gig limit instead of 2Gig, which may be worthwhile in itself. Otherwise same package, same type of battery (maybe a bit more life, not sure), and A/V input for an optional bullet camera. It records in D1 widescreen format (720x480) in addition to standard 640x480. Both at 30 frames per second. The real reason I mention this camera, is that it is suspiciously identical to the 5 in 1 Xtreme DVR available through, which they sell for $240. It may include a minor bell or whistle here or there, but the specs look the same, and it seems hard to justify that price difference with a remote control or padded pouch (which may come with the DV-5800 anyway).

Note that aiptek modifies these models pretty regularly so you can get something called an ISDV or ISDV2 that may or may not support the same features in terms of maximum storage or what not, and there's also multiple versions of the DV5800 and MPVR with differing specs. Be careful you are ordering exactly what you think you are ordring.

I've just come across the Argus Bean 5 MP camera, which can be had for $60 or less. Based on the online manual, this very small camera can do full VGA resolution at 30 frames per second. It can hold up to a 2G card. I can't find how much time it can record on that 2G, but it uses Motion JPEG, which probably means not that much (less than an hour). The form factor is odd - it's shaped like a carabiner. It's 3.8 x 2.6 x 1.5" (which is a very big carabiner, just as big as the aiptek cameras), but with a big hole in the middle. It might be hard to mount - but somehow that big hole might make it easier to mount in some circumstances. Or not. But it is one of the cheapest cameras I've found that claims to do full TV-resolution video.

Other choices

There's any number of older digital cameras that do video, which can be purchased used or clearance for very low prices. For the pain of mounting, and lower recording times, it's not worth paying more than forty or fifty bucks, but at that price you ought to be able to find something worth trying.

There's also a number of older products that are really small, but have much shorter recording times, on the order of five or ten minutes. Google "pen cams" for more info, or check out radio control (RC) groups for info on these. If shorter recording times are fine with you, you should find a lot of cheap (used) options. Before the FlyCamOne2 a popular choice in RC was the 5-in-1 e-dvr pen cam that provides 5 minutes of video at 352x240, 30 frames per second.

There's the "toy" video camera option. This includes an actual helmet camera, the Tony Hawk Helmet Cam. It only does 320x240 video at 15 frames per second, and I've read it can't record more than 15 minutes no matter what size SD card you put in it, though you can start a new one if there's space on your SD card. But you can buy one now for about $30. A slight upgrade would be the Disney Flix Video Camera (available with various Disney names like Hannah, Dora, etc.) which also takes up to a 2G card, but it reportedly records 640x480 - but still at 15 frames per second. And I haven't heard of any time limit besides the card size, and for 2G they say up to 75 minutes. I swear I saw this at Target for $50, but all the online stuff seems to be around $80 (which is way too expensive). Then there's also the Polaroid Pixie Video Camera which does claim full VGA at 30 frames per second. But it also says you can only get 24 minutes on a 2G SD card, which is very low, and may be motion JPEG. It's the largest of these choices so less helmet-mountable, but still smaller than most "real" video cameras. Online prices as low as $30.

And there's also a quasi-do-it-yourself solution. CVS and some other stores sell one-time-use digital video cameras for about $30 that record twenty minutes of video. In theory, you take it back to the store and pay another five bucks or so and they download the video and give it to you on a DVD. But you've paid for it, so you can also keep it, and hack it to add your own USB interface. You'll also need some extra software, because it's not a standard USB protocol. I find this too much time to spend to save too little money and end up with too little recording time. But if you really enjoy that sort of thing, have at it.

There are a number of so-called security cameras out there that are available, some for relatively low prices. I didn't find any that met my criteria. They're either too expensive, or have much lower recording quality, or in most cases both. They're also products with questionable support, as many appear to be products of some little tiny company in some little tiny country. And they generally have a squarish form factor which is not so great for helmet mounting. I'd avoid this route, and stick with more mainstream consumer choices unless things change.

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