Wednesday, June 26, 2013

GoPro Hero2: Why did I "need" one? Dash camera? Review-ish.

I am not an adventurous person. In fact, I am a very boring person with very low expectations and easy to please. What am I doing with a (used to be) $350 camera plus another $100 worth of accessories then?

The very short answer would be: work + stupid + dangerous project.

Work + Stupid + Dangerous
Without giving too much away, work essentially wanted me to walk along busy highways to count things (i.e. inventory). Really high speed limits, enough prior experience to know how dangerous it was, and having to do it for a few hundred kilometers of roads just made it a very unattractive job.
GoPro Hero2 Front
Work + Stupid + Safer?  
When I was officially assigned this stupid project, I immediately started thinking of better ways to do it that may allow me to not end up dead. Every solution seemed to revolve around GPS and a camera. Naturally, I tried to look up cameras with built-in geotagging. There were apparently many dashboard cameras available with both, but they either had questionable reliability in terms of positioning, software issues, or were just hard to purchase. Other features I realized that I needed were HD to pick things out and a wide field of view. One other adventure "adventure camera" was considered, but it was pushing $500 and reviews weren't the best. Eventually, I settled on the GoPro brand because of generally positive reviews and stories of it being successfully used as dash cams.
GoPro Hero2 Left Side
At the time, the GoPro HD HERO2 was the newest model available with the HERO1 priced about $100 cheaper. I settled on the former during a minor sale. However, local stores only had the Outdoor edition with a helmet strap -- the Motorsports edition would have been nicer with a suction cup mount. It was possible to buy the suction cup mount afterwards, but I wanted to see if I could save the $35. The only accessory I got was the GoPro Skeleton Housing so that I could plug the camera in for long filming sessions.
GoPro Hero2: Dash-sh Camera Setup
The GoPro fulfilled the most important of my wishes: a wide angle lens and car mountable. It did not have the geotagging or GPS feature though. In place, I decided to use two automotive GPS units placed side by side on the dash. One would show the vehicle's speed and distance travelled, the other would show a map. And without the suction cup mount, the only option was to sandwich it between the headrest and seat, or use the helmet mount on the headrest. This ended up working amazingly well.
GoPro Hero2 Right Side
Having the adjustable arms on the GoPro mount helped a lot with positioning and having a stable-ish filming platform. Because the camera didn't come with an LCD (add-on option for over $60), my first shoot was supposed to be a tryout session. It turned out that having a 170 degree field of view made proper aiming not very necessary.

First Shoot: Not Bad
Setting up the camera my first time in the car took about 45 minutes in 30 degree Celsius weather. I just put the camera on the helmet mount, pulled it over the passenger seat headrest, tried to point it at the windshield, and got going. How that took 45 minutes? Blame inexperience.
GoPro Hero2 Rear
After I got to my project area, I pulled over, turned the camera on, and tried to keep as quiet as possible because there did not appear to be a mute option. It was supposed to be a short session, so I ran off the battery, which said it had over an hour of power to record 1080p video at. After a 30 minute drive, I was done, I pulled over to download it to a laptop, and I saw the results. Okay, there wasn't much to see because I was outdoors during a bright day with a laptop that had broken backlight adjustment buttons.

I continued to the next destination after charging the camera using a Garmin car charger USB cable. By the time I got to my next area, it was fully charged, and I did it all over again. When I finally did get back to the office to review the results, I was very impressed. The video was HD and high quality, and the field of view covered the entire windshield plus a bit of the passenger side window. There was enough detail that I could zoom in and see smaller road signs.

It wasn't perfect though. The video was jittery and the image vibrated a lot because the camera was strapped to a soft seat and allowed to bounce around -- my fault.

Rinse & Repeat for 15 Shoots: What I Learned
This thankless job required another dozen shoots and months of video processing, but that's a story for another day. The video itself all came out pretty consistently. And along the way, I learned a few things about shooting video for my project.

One of which was that I couldn't tell the difference between 1080p and 720p on my crappy, old, work laptop. That ended up saving a ton of memory. Another lesson was that the battery isn't useless like I thought for some reason. It did allow me to record for over an hour at a time without having to plug the camera into the car -- my GPS' actually ran out of juice sooner when I had to unplug them for the camera. The screens on my GPS' were too small for fine details like small numbers and road names to be read. Only one item, the speedometer, could be picked out consistently from the video.

When it came to the sun, my camera didn't seem to mind having the sun in its field of view for half an hour at a time. No damage that I know of. However, the video was bad because the image became too dark to see a lot of things. The sun visor over the passenger seat actually came in a lot of handy to eventually deal with this problem.

Things I Would Do Differently
Most of the project actually went well. Other people were assigned the same project and it took them a lot more time on the road with two people. I did most of it solo. It floats my boat to think that I did things better?

Regardless, there's really only one thing I would have done differently. And that deals with my original purchase decision: to get the Outdoor edition and not get a suction cup mount. Like I said, the Motorsports edition wasn't available, but it was available separately. YouTube has a bunch of videos shot using GoPros attached to cars by suction cup and they are very very smooth. Whereas the video I shot with the camera strapped to the passenger seat headrest was acceptable, it was by now means smooth.

Considering the amount of time and effort my self-funded $450 camera including accessories saved, I have no regrets about buying it. It hasn't been used all that much in the past few months, but it already paid for itself through the weeks I was allowed to spend in an air conditioned cubicle during the summer -- as opposed to driving around in a car 8 hours a day.

Where's the Video
There's a ton of video on my computers from having to work at home and for backups. I have thought about sharing it, but there are identifying symbols in the footage showing where I work. And I don't have the software to take it out.

P.S. The GoPro Hero3 came out a few months back.

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