Thursday, August 12, 2010

Review - ContourHD 1080 Camera

The ContourHD 1080

I realized at some point that I never posted anything about the helmet cam I'm using now. It works great, it's simple to use, and it's reasonably priced.

I spent about $700-1000 on the original SDC helmet cam setup. Although I detail it in the link, in summary, it included the following main features. It included a small camera that mounts on the helmet (it only "sees" but doesn't record), linked to a camcorder that recorded what the cam saw (i.e. acted like a VCR). I spent a bunch of money on AA batteries for the helmet cam, a LOT of blank tapes for the camcorder, cable adapters, and various "experiments" on how to carry the lot.

Initially I used an old, original CamelBak to hold the whole rig, then a newer CamelBak, then finally, when I started buying lithium AA batteries (expensive but light), I would stick everything in my jersey pockets.

At some point, I started experimenting with a 1080 HD camcorder that used an SD card, using it in place of the camcorder. It was lighter, recorded in better resolution, but it was too unreliable. That experimenting took up enough time for the Contour HD to come out.

In comparison, the ContourHD 1080 cam cost me $325 (it's a little less now), I bought a few $20 8GB MicroSD cards (and promptly misplaced two of them), and... that's it.

Contour 1080 HD on the helmet. The failed 1080 HD minicam on the left.
I use Apple's iMovie to edit the Contour clips, and I use a stock Mac to do it. Both are pictured.

Note how far back the cam is mounted on the helmet - when I am in my normal race posture, my head tilts down a bit. The cam needs to be level at that point.

Note how far back the cam is on the helmet.
From the Keith Berger post, photo courtesy Mrs SOC.

One of the things I like about the ContourHD is its ease of use.

Before you start using the camera, you can set the resolution to two settings, saving them as "Low" or "High" controlled by a switch in the controls (this you'd need to use a delicate fingernail or the like). I followed Justin (he who first had one of these and impressed me with its playback quality) and his recommendations for the Contour settings - I use 720p @ 60fps (frames per second). This way it's clear and has smooth motion. At 1080p @ 30fps it's like watching a strobe light movie.

Since I only want that 720p@60fps setting, I put it in both "Low" and "High" when initially setting up the Contour. Other than prompting a friendly "Are you sure" message, that went fine.

Under a rubber protective cover:
1. Battery on right, held in by red cross bar thing.
2. MicroSD card on lower left. It's tiny.
3. The USB adapter port thing.
4. The switch for "Low" and "High" resolution.
5. The square in the middle, between the battery and the MicroSD card, is the power switch.

After setting up the resolution, you need to mount the thing and rotate the lens to match the mounting orientation. So if you're mounting it sideways like me, you need to rotate the lens so it's level. If you have problems "seeing" level, you can hold the power button down for a few seconds. A pair of laser beams shoots out, allowing you to align the lens.

Unfortunately, the lasers were burning holes in everything that isn't reflective. My living room walls have parallel burn marks everywhere. Wear a welding mask when making adjustments using the lasers.

Okay, that last paragraph isn't true. I was just kidding back there. But don't look at the lasers. Don't point them at pets, kids, or planes. And that's serious.

Finally, there's a power button that you can hit even when you have long finger gloves on. It takes about 10 seconds to boot up, maybe a bit more time, and it beeps to let you know it's ready.

Now you're set.

Charge the thing overnight and it's ready to be used. I leave it on my helmet for reasons you'll see in a bit, and I just charge it on there. I also clear the memory card so it's empty when I grab the helmet for a ride.

When you want to use it, it's pretty straight forward.

Turn it on.

Wait for the beep.

And slide the record button forward.

Record button, slid forward. If no red shows, you're not recording.
You can slide it forward even with thick gloves on.

When you slide the button forward, you hear a "beep-beep". You're set.

When you slide the button back, you hear another "beep-beep". You've stopped recording.

If you don't record for 15 minutes, it "beep-beeps" and powers off. Now, if you want to record, you need to turn the unit back on, wait for the boot-up beep, then slide the record button forward.

If you hear any beeps while you're not fiddling with the record button, then things are not good. Either you ran out of memory or battery. It beeps once to give you a warning, then, in short order, twice to let you know you're done.

On an 8GB MicroSD card, you can record about 2 hours of footage.

If you're turning it off when things are boring, you can record 2 hours of footage over the course of, oh, about 6 hours. At least that's been my experience.

Battle scars.

The unit is pretty tough too. I fell on it at about 30 mph. The Contour got a few scratches but was otherwise fine. I've recorded many rides and races since, and it's been fine.

Waitaminute, you say. Rides and races? You record your rides?

Well, yes. Let me explain.

When I fell, a year and a day ago today, the move that took me out was pretty clearly a move that wasn't safe to make. It's kind of obvious to say that because I fell, but seriously, it was a pretty dangerous move.

Because there was no photographic or video evidence of the move, the authorities had to use witness statements. If the statements varied then nothing was certain.

The statements varied and therefore nothing was certain.

What was certain was that I ended up losing enough money (through my medical deductible and lost wages) to buy TWENTY ContourHD1080s with an 8GB card for each one.

If I'd done that before that fateful race, I'd have had 20 different video clips of the incident. It would be hard to refute what happened.

So, after that crash, I told myself that I'd try and record every race with a helmet cam. My original set up was too difficult to use regularly so I looked for an alternative. JT found the ContourHD, took the plunge to try one, and I bought one because of him.

I decided, after a training ride where I watched some, um, unusual moves made by drivers, that I'd wear a helmet cam when I trained too. This way I'd have footage of whatever happened in front of me. If someone turned left suddenly in front of me without using a turn signal, causing me to hit the car, I'd have video proof of what happened.

It would make things so much clearer.

I started wearing the ContourHD on training rides, but I rapidly ran out of hard drive space. I deleted uninteresting clips, but knew I had to get some more drive space. I bought two 1.5 TB external drives, using them to back up the helmet cam clips and the iMovie files associated with each edited YouTube clip.

Note: iMovie bloats a 4 GB raw footage file to as much as 40-60 GB of files before you have a finished clip. It uses a LOT of drive space.

Now I record every day I ride (outside - I have yet to record a trainer session) and save to drive, just like I do the SRM. This is why I leave the ContourHD mounted to the helmet - I don't ride outside without the helmet, and I don't ride without the ContourHD. So I leave it on the helmet permanently.

I think that the helmet cam has dissuaded some riders from making sketchy moves. I have many instances captured in the raw footage where a rider really wants to make a move, looks, sees me, does a double take, looking at the camera, then decides not to make the move. I really think the camera acts like a police man in those situations - you want to speed but there's a police car sitting on the shoulder, so you don't.

Wouldn't it be great if there were 40 or 50 helmet cams in every race you did? If anyone pulled an iffy move, there'd be evidence of it.

I think that's great.

Granted, it might be a helmet cam wearer that pulls the sketchy move. But that's not necessarily a bad thing, at least if no one gets hurt.

See, because of its ability to capture such moments, the helmet cam is a great tool for learning. That applies to everyone, from the helmet cam rider's point of view (i.e. mine) as well as the riders around the cam (i.e. the riders you see in the clips).

Cam clips vividly illustrate riding flaws, things like poor group riding skills, making abrupt movements, improper gear selection, or even poor position. They also show tactical errors the wearer makes, or lapses of concentration.

I watched footage I hadn't edited at that time and found some puzzling head shaking. I didn't know what was going on, so I looked at my race notes to see what happened. Ends up I had my ears covered, and when I uncovered one ear, I realized that I rely on my hearing to feel comfortable in close quarters. Since it was only a lap or two to go, I desperately tugged at my very snug, very warm head cover. I managed to get my ears uncovered in time for the sprint.

I also used the helmet cam recently to help critique a teammate's sprint - he's changed the way he sprints because of that critiquing session. The Missus watched clips where she rode with me to see how she rode. And other riders, friends of mine, will watch some of the footage to see how they're doing. It's all good. It's feedback with no judgment, just evidence.

It works.

I think everyone should go get a ContourHD helmet cam or something like it. Definitely get HD because it'll get license plates and such. Wear your cam whenever you ride your bike outside. Even if you don't save all your recorded rides, just record your rides. Wipe the memory clear if nothing happened. Recording rides regularly will enable you to save, on video, that close call or near miss or, heaven forbid, an accident. If something like that happens, save the recording. Now you have evidence on what happened.



Jones said...

Thanks for the post! What do you do with the camera when you hit unexpected rain?

Aki said...

It's like my cell phone - just hope. I rode with it in pouring rain at a race - took a few days to dry out afterwards, and because of that, I missed recording a really good race in New London CT.

Now I skip it if it's raining. Well, I normally ride indoors if it's raining anyway. I've had it when it's drizzled on me and had no problems. It's the torrential downpours it doesn't like.

I'm considering buying a second one as well as a waterproof case. But that's well in the future.

Anonymous said...

You seem very concerned in other posts about aero wheels and light weight frames, etc, etc, yet you don't seem concerned about the added weight and wind resistance of the camera. Is that because it is negligible, or is it simply a price you're now willing to pay given the value you get from the recordings?

Aki said...

I didn't point out but the camera weighs about a quarter pound, 100 grams.

One of the reasons I avoided using the camcorder set up all the time was it weighed a bit, about 3 lbs, and it moved around a lot when I was out of the saddle.

Aero-wise I can't imagine the ContourHD making a huge difference, although I have no objective data on this.

Ultimately, for me, it's about fit (and resulting aero position of body), fast light wheels (aero), reasonable rider weight, and tactics. I'm composing a post about this for the future.

The Cycling Chronicles said...

What format do you record in (MPEG, AVI, MPG, MOV, etc)? and issue with using iMovie reading that format, meaning do you have to convert it first to "Mac" speak?

Aki said...

The ContourHD records in .mov. The "problem" is importing a movie file into iMovie - it does something in that process that takes a long time. I know that iMovie makes it much easier to edit movies (compared to Windows Movie Maker) because everything is indexed and such. Of course that takes a bunch of CPU and balloons the raw footage from 4 GB to about 30-60 GB.

But a .mov file looks great in iMovie. The .avi file I worked with for the CT Coast Crit had this weird "heat wave" effect (using Windows Movie Maker). The earlier non-HD clips were imported into Windows Movie Maker from DV tape and saved in .wmv format. I'm thinking of redoing one in iMovie to see if there's a dramatic difference in quality.

RacerMike said...

Hey Aki, thanks for the review. Just curious what class microSD cards you are using or have you done any experimentation in that area.

Aki said...

I checked - I have Class 6 speed 8GB cards. It's depressing - now I can get Class 10 16 GB ones.

I seem to have a lot of moments where I need to copy the data off the card quickly (i.e. on the way to a race or ride). I've screwed up twice now, losing race footage due to not erasing data (because I either wanted it or thought I'd already erased it).

I bought a few extra MicroSD cards but lost them all at once, when they were new (still looking for them).

I really haven't thought of Class except for copying off the device. I figure there's got to be other bottlenecks.

Matthew Demarest said...

Hi Aki, I'm going through older posts to catch up. I just heard your tip on the Spokesmen Podcast and am intrigued on using a camera. Any thoughts on mounting it on the handlebars rather than the helmet? I imagine it would be harder to upload and a little less convenient to capture things of interest while riding. However, it would be a little less conspicuous, add a little less weight to the head, and probably have a smaller aero profile.

Have you given any thought to this?

Aki said...

You can mount a ContourHD camera to the bars using just two zipties diagonally. I saw it done in person at Red Trolley 2011 and it worked fine. It's very discrete.

A "stem cam" captures only actions, no intent. So, for example, if I'm looking at a car coming at me from the right and run into the rider in front of me, a helmet cam captures me looking right. A stem cam captures me ramming the rider in front.

I think there are advantages to both. However, since I think that it's important to illustrate what I'm thinking of, for now I'm going with the helmet mount.

The other way works well too. A guy that posts a lot of videos uses that method (youtube username sweixel); he borrowed my ContourHD for 2011, and I only got it to him a few minutes before the start.