The launch of the Hitachi MPEG Cam last year generated interest among Web publishers, many of whom envision the day when the current text and photo content of average Web pages can be augmented with audio and full-motion video. Finally, here is a device that offers a quick and easy way to shoot MPEG video and sound, in addition to JPEG still photographs, for Web and other multimedia applications.
Hitachi arranged to put an MP-EG1A camera in my hands for review, and it became a constant companion. I covered a half dozen events each week during my trial period, and wherever I went the camera attracted attention and comment. Due to the angle between the lens and body of the camera (you don't hold it perpendicular to the subject as you do with an ordinary camera), a few Star Trek fans said it resembled a tricorder. But, unlike other devices that have been compared to fictional Star Trek gear, the MPEG Cam literally is a tricorder, recording three formats: still images, sound, and full-motion video.
A New Twist -- The MPEG Cam differs from a conventional camera in several ways. The most noticeable is a 180-degree swiveling lens head that can shoot to the left, straight ahead, or back towards the user's face. The image sensor, a quarter-inch Charge Coupled Device (CCD) chip, captures 390,000 pixels and displays them on a 1.8-inch LCD color display. The whole unit is powered by a rechargeable lithium-ion battery - the camera comes with two batteries and a charger. The media inside the camera consists of a single 260 MB Type III hard disk PC Card that can store 20 minutes of digital video, 3,000 still images, or 4 hours of digital audio (mono).
If you're accustomed to shooting news and features with a conventional 35 mm camera, you'll need to get used to the Hitachi MP-EG1A. Instead of putting the camera to your eye and framing through the lens or a viewfinder, using the MPEG Cam is more like holding up a television image of your finished picture, composing on screen, then pushing the button to capture it. The swiveling head was useful on a few occasions. A magazine for which I write asked me for a mug shot, so I just picked up the camera, swiveled the lens toward me, held it at arm's length, and composed a self-portrait onscreen. After taking the shot, I transferred the image from the PC Card to my Mac, then tweaked it in Photoshop before sending it as an email attachment across the continent. The swiveling head is also handy for recording interviews. You can put the MPEG Cam into a base holder, swivel the head toward you and the subject of your interview, compose the image with the zoom and use an included remote control (similar to a channel changer) to start and stop the recording process.
Pixel Imperfect -- The image sensor captures 390,000 pixels, but not all pixels are created equal. The zoom, for example, is 3x optical and 2x digital, which means some of the zoomed pixels are generated by calculations from the camera's processor, resulting in image degradation. Several times, after using the zoom and taking pictures that looked good on the small screen, I later found the pictures unusable because they were too pixelated. Fortunately, the camera holds 3,000 images (so I rarely returned from an event without something usable), but I was disappointed to find that several images were unsuitable. However, even with a conventional optical zoom, you don't always achieve the crisp quality you get with a shorter lens and being closer to your subject.
I wasn't prepared for the volume of images. Instead of ending up with 24 or 36 images from a traditional (non-digital) camera and then scanning one or two prints, I found myself shooting over 100 images and ending up with 20 or 30 already in digital form. Sometimes I shot scenes I would not have bothered with previously; my philosophy became, "I can shoot it all, so why not?" It took a while to learn to manage the images, but I also found new uses for them in other publishing projects and used the MPEG Cam as a visual and audio notebook when on assignment.
Unlike most other digital cameras, still images from the MPEG Cam are recorded at 72 pixels per inch (ppi), creating images measuring 704 by 480 pixels and saved using JPEG compression. For Web publishing, where small file sizes are the order of the day, this is fine, but photographers looking for high resolution (or even moderate resolution) print output will probably want to look at other digital cameras. [See Arthur Bleich's article series on digital cameras in TidBITS-407 and TidBITS-408 for a comparison of several cameras currently on the market. -Jeff]
MPEG Wishes and JPEG Dreams -- After developing a solid appreciation for its potential and drawbacks, I drew up the following wish list for the MPEG Cam.
First, it needs a flash. Shooting in darkness is fine for some things, but too many indoor events are staged in low light. The camera delivered the goods in a few low light situations, but it would have been nicer to capture more detail.
The second item on my wish list would be a lens cap. I was always afraid of scratching the lens or damaging it in some way, and had to treat the camera more gingerly than my old Pentax workhorse. I was amazed a $1,500 to $2,000 piece of equipment didn't include one.
The MPEG Cam also needs a better interface to the computer. Moving from the camera to a laptop computer was a piece of cake, since all I had to do was pop out the PC card and insert it into my PowerBook. If you don't have access to a laptop that can handle Type III PC Cards, you must use a separate $299 Macintosh SCSI interface kit - which adds an octopus of wires and an adapter to your desktop. The PreStage software provided was also slow and awkward to use. Moving images from the camera to my desktop computer became a major problem.
Finally, the MPEG Cam should include a shoulder strap and a carrying case. Although relatively light at 1.2 pounds, the camera is awkward when, for example, you're juggling a notebook and a plate of hors d'oeuvres at a cocktail party. The camera's wrist strap is handy, but it would also be convenient to hang the camera from your shoulder. The Hitachi MP-EG1A fit well in my briefcase and in a fanny pack, but both locations were not as convenient as they might have been.
I must admit that I pushed this little camera to the edge with some of my work. It lived in my briefcase and on my desk for two months, during which time I found its combination of video, audio, and still photography quite compelling. Although high-resolution photographers may be disappointed, Web and multimedia publishers will find the MPEG Cam a useful addition to their toolboxes.
[John Shinnick is Editor/Publisher of New Wave Publishers, which produces the Media West newsletter based in Vancouver, Canada.]