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The Flexible FlexCam

I'm not a video freak, even though I bought a 660AV last fall to replace my trusty SE/30. I've only once hooked my VCR to the 660AV to record QuickTime movies, and I just don't think in terms of video. However, when we got a chance to test one, I was pleasantly surprised by the FlexCam video camera from VideoLabs.

Perhaps the most unique thing about the camera is its physical size and shape. A small circular head, not quite two inches across, perches on the end of an 18-inch flexible gooseneck arm. For those who aren't familiar with goosenecks (geeseneck?), they're made of a flexible cable containing the actual wires inside. You can bend and twist them to almost any position, and they hold that position until you move them again. A pair of pinhole sized microphones are placed just below and to the sides of the camera lens. The gooseneck arm sits on top of a stylish base that's about seven inches wide and seven inches deep. A cable snakes from the back of the base to a hydra-headed end with RCA video, and two RCA audio plugs that attach to the video and audio ports on your Mac or video digitizer card. Finally, a clever power plug attaches to an additional wire on the hydra-head so you only have a single cable cluttering your desktop.

Frankly, the thing looks like a small, but very cute, robot eye peeking out at you. It would be even cuter if it focussed automatically, so it was continually following you in and out. As it is, the manual focus ring is easy to turn for a quick focus. If the gooseneck was thicker, and colored jet black, the FlexCam might seem sinister, but as I said, it's extremely cute and an unobtrusive addition to the collection (if your desk is anything like mine) of platinum Macintosh accessories arrayed in front of you.

That's in fact the entire point behind the FlexCam. It's small, unobtrusive, and fits right in with your Macintosh (there's also a version with a digitizer card, called the FlexCap, for Windows). Once you plug it in and give it a home on your desk (which took all of about five minutes, most of which I spent trying squirm behind my desk so I could find the right port on the back of the 660AV), you just use it.

Ah, well, there's the crunch. You're not going to plop down $595 for a video camera and not use it unless you have more money than I. So what might you use the FlexCam for? Again, I'm not a video person, but it seems that you can use it for most anything that you would use a normal video camera for (at least on your desk, the basic FlexCam doesn't travel), and then some. Tonya and I tried it out with the two basic video applications we have, the version of FusionRecorder that came with my 660AV, and Cornell's amazing free CU-SeeMe Internet videoconferencing application, which you can find in:

I don't like FusionRecorder, but we were able to create a simple, but lousy, QuickTime movie in about ten minutes of fiddling, most of which took place in FusionRecorder. The only things we had to mess with on the FlexCam were the focus and the position of the camera head. If we'd been doing something for real, we would have worried about the background and the lighting as well, but the FlexCam worked well in the random environment we threw at it. VideoLabs claims that the FlexCam produces high-quality images, but with nothing to compare to, I couldn't say. In addition, I also gather that both the digitizer and the output monitor make a difference in the final image.

Our test case involved making a QuickTime movie of the cover to the second edition of Internet Starter Kit for Macintosh. Since the book is in production as I write this, Hayden sends me color proofs via FedEx so I can check the cover for errors. I figured that a QuickTime movie that panned slowly over the page would give me all I needed for basic editing and comments, and they could email that to me. The only problem was, we couldn't get the entire 8.5 inches of the width of the page on screen at once and have it close enough to read the smaller type. Moving the camera head closer to the page solved that problem, but made panning around it more difficult. I suspect that if we really wanted to do this, we'd have to get the DocuCam camera from VideoLabs, since it's designed specifically for showing documents onscreen.

Even though the FlexCam wasn't perfectly suited for this task, I imagine that it was a heck of a lot easier than dealing with a camcorder and trying to display pages with it. Bending the FlexCam's neck to look down at the desk was simplicity itself - all we had to watch for was focus and the alignment of the page, since there is definite orientation to the image.

The next test involved CU-SeeMe. I've used CU-SeeMe to receive video (well, jerky video and fast-moving snapshots) over my 14,400 bps PPP link before, but I've never tried to send anything other than scrolling text on CU-SeeMe's black screen. CU-SeeMe works both in point-to-point mode and with what Cornell calls a "reflector," which is a Unix machine set up to reflect up to eight streams of video back to you. Thus, when you start up and connect to the Cornell reflector at <>, you see up to eight video windows appear, yours and seven others. There may be fewer, since you never know who's transmitting, and at 11 PM on a Wednesday night, only a site in Australia was on the reflector, and no one there seemed to be watching the screen at all, even though CU-SeeMe indicated that they could see us (it's good about telling you when you're on the air, so to speak, and provides detailed statistics on what's going on).

CU-SeeMe uses only 16 levels of gray to minimize traffic (this is working over a modem, remember!), and the FlexCam was perfectly suited to the task. I just aimed the camera head and focussed on Tonya, who then made faces at the oblivious people in Australia. Although the technology isn't quite here, I'll be curious to see what kind of underground Internet broadcasting CU-SeeMe and inexpensive cameras like the FlexCam make possible. We could do a TidBITS Live, for instance, although only people with fast connections could use the audio-portion of CU-SeeMe (originally from Maven) to listen in as well as watch. Hmm, although a heavily produced video show would be out of the question, perhaps a simple news and analysis broadcast... The wheels are turning...

Perhaps that's what I like most about the FlexCam. It's such a neat little device that it started me thinking about what I could do with it. Sure, Internet videoconferencing may not be a daily reality for all that many people (although a number of people at Cornell seem to use it) and you're not going to use the FlexCam to take action movies for use with QuickTime, but a video camera as computer peripheral starts to open up different possibilities. What will come of those possibilities, I don't know.

I mentioned the DocuCam for viewing documents or small objects (it can focus close in, which results in small objects being magnified 50:1 when viewed on a large screen monitor), and VideoLabs has several other cameras based on the FlexCam design but optimized for certain tasks. A FlexCam Pro model adds S-Video output for higher quality images. FlexCam Scientific and FlexCam Scientific Pro are designed for classroom viewing and magnification of objects and technical documents. With an optional microscope adapter, you can attach either one to a microscope or telescope to display, well, whatever is on the other side of the microscope or telescope. Another FlexCam derivative in the works is the WirelessCam, which is a FlexCam with the camera head module mounted on the end of a 24-inch cable that you can carry around, or mount on a helmet or lapel. Talk about live action and underground broadcasting - "Could you speak up for the flower in my lapel, sir?"

VideoLabs -- 612/897-1995 -- 612/897-3597 (fax)


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