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Adam has finally gone too far - at least with magnification levels! With Bodelin's ProScope USB microscope, no hair is too fine (or gray) to escape his 50X-magnified vision. Also this week, Derek Miller walks through how to edit digital video without expensive hardware and software. In the news, EIMS Light appears at half the price of EIMS, and check out the charity auction for a TidBITS t-shirt signed by Adam - all proceeds go to the Mac-A-Wish Foundation.
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by Adam C. Engst <email@example.com>
Perhaps it's related to my lousy vision, but I've never had much luck with telescopes or microscopes. Celestial objects look like little white dots to me, and I hate removing my glasses to use a microscope. Don't confuse my inability to use magnification devices for a lack of interest in what they enable you to view - I just want the image blown up to a normal size that I can see comfortably. That's why I was ecstatic at Macworld New York in 2001 when I first saw the ProScope USB microscope that Bodelin distributes in the U.S. I promptly gave it one of our show superlative awards. And had I not remembered the previous superlative, I probably would have given it another one when I saw it at 2002's Macworld San Francisco. It's a neat device, and it demos incredibly well.
Referring to the microscope is actually a bit tricky, and you may see various names used in different situations. Bodelin calls it the ProScope, but they're actually just the distributor for the microscope, which is manufactured by another company called Scalar. Its full name, as emblazoned on the device, is "Scalar USB Microscope M2," although "theScope" is also printed on the head of the microscope. Call it what you will - I'm going to stick with Bodelin's name, the ProScope.
Magnified Details -- What is the ProScope? As you can see on Bodelin's home page, it's an oddly shaped handheld microscope about six inches tall, with a lens protruding about two inches from the top. It wouldn't look out of place as a futuristic ray gun in a low-budget sci-fi flick. The ProScope fits comfortably in your hand, and it's essentially point-and-shoot, since there's a button your index finger can click to record a still image of what the microscope is displaying or to start and stop movie recording. A switch on the side turns its lens light on and off, and another button releases the lens so you can swap in another one with a different magnification level. Standard tripod mounts on the front and back provide attachment points for securing it when working at higher magnifications, and Bodelin offers a $125 steel stand designed for positioning the microscope in any number of orientations. Finally, a 6-foot USB cable connects it to a USB port on your Mac.
Bodelin sells the ProScope with a 50X lens for $230, and they also carry a $100 1-10X lens that enables the ProScope to work more like a USB webcam, and for those who want to magnify more, 100X ($110) and 200X ($130) lenses are also available. The ProScope also accepts a $20 C-ring threaded lens adapter for working with standard C-mount lenses or for attaching directly to a normal microscope or telescope for image capture.
The hardware is only part of the package. First, you must drop a driver in your Mac OS 9 Extensions folder and reboot - the ProScope doesn't currently work under Mac OS X, although the driver gurus at IOXperts are working on a Mac OS X driver that should work with the camera guts inside the ProScope (which operate at a resolution of 640 x 480 - we're not talking digital camera quality here). See "Driving FireWire Webcams in Mac OS X" in TidBITS-619 for more on IOXperts' driver work.
Second, an application called USB Shot provides the ProScope's real-time display, offers access to settings, and lets you switch between three basic modes: Snap Shot, Movie Shot, and Interval Shot. In Snap Shot mode, clicking the ProScope's button takes a still picture of whatever is currently showing on the display. In Movie Shot mode, clicking the button starts recording a QuickTime movie; a second click stops the recording. In Interval Shot mode, clicking the button starts and stops recording of a QuickTime movie generated from sequential still images. There's also an onscreen equivalent to the ProScope's hardware capture button, which is essential when working at 200X magnification because touching the microscope's button can cause the picture to shake unacceptably. Pictures and movies you record show up as thumbnails in a filmstrip-style interface below the main display pane; clicking one replaces the real time display with the stored image. The pictures and movies have sequentially numbered names, and live in user-defined folders on your hard disk, so it would be easy to add them to an image cataloging program like iPhoto or a media cataloging program like iView MediaPro, which can handle movies as well as still images.
Up Close Testing -- I test a lot of products, and few have stood out as much as the ProScope for pure fun. A highly technical friend was visiting the night after my review unit arrived, so after Tristan was in bed, we all retired to my office and starting pointing the ProScope at anything within reach of its 6-foot cord. Hair, skin, clothing, small tchotchkes from my desk, and so on. The 50X lens we initially used proved to work the best for the kind of real-world objects we were viewing.
The 200X lens was trickier to use, since keeping the ProScope steady enough to get a good picture proved almost impossible. Attaching it to the stand helped significantly, although even then adjusting the focus or clicking the capture button could jar the ProScope enough to move the image. The 1-10X lens (which lacked the built-in lens light of the other two lenses) turned the ProScope into a relatively standard webcam, and as such, it wasn't particularly interesting, although it appeared to work acceptably and I did have some fun pointing it at its own display on the screen, so the feedback images appeared to repeat into infinity.
But using the 50X lens opened up an entirely new way of looking at familiar objects, and for me, being a writer, a new way of looking at words. That undoubtedly sounds odd, but when you look at tiny text at 50X magnification, the words somehow gain mass and weight, and stand up from the surface they're on. Plus, you can see so little at a time that you end up parsing the text very differently. Fibers in clothing also proved fascinating, since you could see the warp and weft of the weave perfectly. At that level of magnification, fibers also weren't always the colors you expected - just because something looks black in aggregate doesn't mean that every thread used to make it was black. The same proved to be true of hair - although my hair is a light brown made lighter by an increasing amount of gray, individual hairs spanned the gamut of shades. Check out the gallery of images (and two movies) I took with the ProScope for an indication of what you can do and see.
The target audience for the ProScope is undoubtedly K-12 science teachers, since the ProScope is easy enough to use for the youngest children, and particularly in this video-intensive world, making science highly visible can't but help make kids more interested. I could even see parents getting one for kids to play with at home. It's not just for kids either. A molecular biologist friend borrowed the ProScope from me for a few days, and his research lab came to a grinding halt for much of a day as he and his graduate students put it through its paces. They have plenty of powerful microscopes, but the ProScope provided a useful combination of decent magnification and a form factor that worked well for quick looks at objects that didn't lend themselves to being mounted on slides (think dissected mouse guts). The fact that images could also be captured easily for publication was also a plus. Bodelin has also been seeing a lot of interest from the law enforcement community - since I heard that, I haven't been able to banish the mental image of a modern-day Sherlock Holmes holding a ProScope and peering at an iBook as though it were a magnifying glass. Reportedly Bodelin is working on adding a lens for taking pictures of fingerprints as well.
Zoom in on Rough Edges -- There's no question that the ProScope is utterly cool, but it still has some annoyances. Most notable is that it doesn't work at all when plugged into a keyboard's USB port, and when I plugged it into the powered Dr. Bott gHub on my desk, it worked, but was horribly flaky. Plugging it into my Power Mac G4's USB port eliminated all the problems, but tied up a good chunk of the 6-foot cable. An iBook or PowerBook would provide the maximum flexibility. (As an aside, Dr. Bott is now selling the ProScope in both the U.S. and Germany, making it a bit easier to find.)
To be fair, this requirement of avoiding a USB hub is alluded to in the documentation, but the documentation is so terrible that I expect many people will miss the few bits of useful information hidden in the poorly translated (from Japanese) manuals. (My favorite: "If you cannot get a happy color image, please try the below.") There are two paper manuals, both of which are in Japanese and English (such as it is) - one manual documents the microscope, and the other covers installing the software for Windows and Macintosh. (The entire package is fully Windows-compatible as well.) There's also a PDF guide to using the software that's slightly better than the printed manuals, although it has some encoding errors that generate an error dialog in Adobe Acrobat Reader every time I open it. Frankly, it's a shame - a product this neat shouldn't be shackled by documentation that's both unhelpful and badly translated. I haven't beaten this dead horse in a while, but there are plenty of technical writers who could do a far better job for not much money, and barring that, there are certainly many translators who could at least render the original into proper English.
USB Shot itself is a simple application, and although it would be easy to complain about some of its various design decisions, it does what it sets out to do. My main irritation is that you can't even run it without the ProScope attached, which would be awkward in a classroom, for instance, where kids using multiple computers should be able to review their images while sharing a single ProScope.
The hardware side has a few annoyances as well. The switch that controls the light has three settings, A, Off, and B. As far as I can tell, A means that the light is on, and both Off and B mean that the light is off. Accurate markings would be nice. Plus, none of those settings will turn off the microscope entirely, and it somehow doesn't seem right to leave it plugged in and turned on all the time, although unplugging it means rooting around behind my Power Mac. Finally, although I'm sure you'd get good at it with practice, I found attaching the lenses a bit awkward, particularly until I figured out that the sticker identifying the magnification level was near the little plastic bit that had to line up with another little plastic bit. A little kid could use the ProScope, but I'd be very leery of letting one change lenses, particularly considering that the CCD that actually captures the image is exposed when the lens is removed. I'd also be leery of traveling with the lenses when they aren't connected to the ProScope - Bodelin tells me they're working on a case that should help keep all the pieces together.
These are but quibbles, though, and once you've managed to connect the ProScope, install the software, and figure out basic operation, none of them will slow you down at all in normal usage. And now, if you don't mind, I need to do some more exploring of the 50X world.
by Derek K. Miller <firstname.lastname@example.org>
For a long time, digital video editing seemed more work than it was worth, and I let Apple's DV train pass right on by. Recently, I was forced to catch up all too quickly, but I managed to do it without emptying my bank account on new hardware and software.
The Train Has Left the Station -- One of my jobs is being a drummer for a retro-'60s faux British Invasion band here in Vancouver called The Neurotics.
In spring 2001, our booking agent arranged to have one of our larger performances professionally videotaped by a camera crew. Several months later, she asked if we could make a three-minute promotional video from the resulting VHS tape, since many high-end clients want to see what they'll be paying for.
We had no particular deadline, no budget, and no one who knew what they were doing. The rest of the band members swiveled their eyes in my direction.
Laying the Tracks -- I decided to work with what I had: an older beige Power Mac G3, USB video input, the free version of iMovie 1.0.2 for Mac OS 9 (iMovie 2 for Mac OS 9 remains a $50 upgrade), and whatever other hardware and software I had kicking around. I wanted to buy only new videotapes and CD-Rs for the end product.
I figured that I would digitize the audio and video separately, then put everything together in my very limited spare time over the course of a couple months. I started by watching the whole performance and took many notes. Then I recorded the entire show's audio from my VCR (in mono) into Coaster, the free audio digitizer from Visual Click Software:
I broke the resulting files into a few chunks with the QuickTime Pro Player, then backed up the results to CD using Roxio's Toast.
Next, I fired up Pro Tools Free, a freeware 8-track sound mixer, which I used to edit (again in mono) the best bits of audio into a continuous montage of various songs and silly stage banter, with cross-fades, seamless splices, and other trickery to make sure it kept up a good pace. I saved it as an 18 MB AIFF file that was three and a half minutes long.
This soundtrack formed the backbone of everything else I did. Once it was finished, I left it alone.
Scanning the Scenery -- The next step was to tackle the video. I used my XLR8 InterView USB video capture device to digitize useful videotape segments. The InterView captures at 320 x 240 pixels, which is a lower resolution than the 720 x 480 output of a digital camcorder's DV (digital video) stream. However, it shares the same 30 frames per second (fps) frame rate as a camcorder.
Digitizing only short segments (between 30 seconds and 2 minutes each) became necessary because I have a relatively small 12 GB partitioned hard drive with lots of stuff on it already. At 215 MB or so per minute, there's no way it could hold two hours of video. (I ended up having to back up and purge my MP3 collection to make room.)
iMovie is designed to take digital video only from a DV camera through a FireWire port. With some trickery, however, it can also import DV files (but no other type of movie) from a hard disk. I used QuickTime Pro to convert each InterView QuickTime video file into a DV-formatted file. That scaled up the dimensions of the video images, but with the DV compression algorithm, each file stayed roughly the same (fairly huge) size, using up roughly twice as much hard disk space as the raw video files required on their own. After another backup, I deleted the non-DV movie files.
Coupling the Cars -- After all my importing and conversion, I created an iMovie 1 project. Although I have both Strata VideoShop 4.5 (included with the InterView) and Adobe Premiere LE 5.1 (included with my FireWire/USB card), I find iMovie so much easier to use that I was willing to go through all the DV conversion rigamarole just to use it. That's a testament to the good job Apple did simplifying iMovie to do the very essentials.
I next imported the entire audio track and did nothing with it for the rest of the time I worked.
After dumping a few of the DV stream files at a time into the iMovie project folder, I ran iMovie so it would find the clips and automatically import them as "strays." I then dragged them into the Timeline Viewer in rough order before I quit and dropped in the next batch, so that iMovie's clip tray wouldn't get full. (iMovie 2 removes this limitation.)
I did my editing in iMovie in one day, dragging files around, shortening them, creating transitions, and trying to get the images to match the rhythm of the soundtrack. During that time, I used GraphicConverter and Photoshop to create logo-title cards, manipulate still photos, and generate other JPEG and PICT files. On the Web, I also found an old-style "Indian head" TV test pattern, and a little stock clip of applause for the end of the video.
Since I had sampled them separately, I didn't try to sync up video and audio at all, even though they were from the same performance. In the end, I was surprised at a few clips where it looked like people were playing precisely what was on the audio track - even when the audio and video were from completely different parts of the show.
The End of the Line -- I saved the completed video using iMovie's "Expert" QuickTime export settings, at 640 x 480, 29.97 frames per second, Cinepak compression at maximum quality, and uncompressed mono audio, 16-bit, 22.5 kHz. Essentially, that was as high quality as I could manage. This file was about 260 MB, and took my Power Mac G3/266 about four hours to generate.
I exported and posted large (13 MB) and small (6 MB) Web videos. Before posting them to the band's Web site, I opened them in the QuickTime Pro Player and zoomed them to double size for better visibility in Web browsers, especially on large monitors.
After I outlined most of this process in a TidBITS Talk discussion of digital video, Duane Byram of Apple's QuickTime engineering group noticed that he had to wait as each video downloaded before it would play. He offered a simple fix: save the file again from the QuickTime Pro Player as a "Self Contained" movie file. Apparently, any edits made to a saved movie file (such as adding annotations) prevent it from fast-starting when downloaded. Saving a self-contained version after all modifications solves the problem.
Following comments from the rest of the band and our agent, I popped back into iMovie and changed a few small things, then exported and uploaded again the next night. I used Apple's iTools HomePage tool to create the video pages, since it was fast and I was hosting the video on our iTools site anyway.
I burned a few different versions of the video to CD - first a data backup, then a Video CD/audio hybrid (with some audio-only song demos we'd recorded a couple of years ago on the audio portion), then a QuickTime/audio hybrid. Those were for clients who would rather watch the video on a computer or DVD player. (Having missed the DV train, of course, I don't have a DVD burner.)
Finally, I used my ATI Xclaim 3D Plus video card's analog video-out port to transfer the completed video (running full-screen from the QuickTime Pro player) to VHS tape, then added the audio-only song demos on the end with static title cards displaying as they play. I made the title cards in Photoshop, and simply manually switched between layers to display each song's title as it played from iTunes during recording. A bit awkward (especially since I had to do it all manually again for each new master tape), but it worked.
Unloading the Luggage -- Making the video took a lot of time, but very little expense. I have never edited video of any kind before, so I think it turned out quite well.
Surprisingly, the actual "video editing" was a small part of the procedure. Just as in real movies, preparation and post-production are much bigger pieces. Most of the work was not in the video editing, but in the sampling and conversion, and (surprisingly) in the creation of the audio track. I spent a lot of time doing other things (or sleeping) while my Mac turned one sort of file into another sort of file. I see now why people who do this for a living buy the fastest computers possible, regardless of cost.
The final video quality is not spectacular, but it is full-screen, 30 fps, and it looks like old film from the '60s (slightly washed-out colours, somewhat grainy), which is perfectly appropriate for our retro-'60s band. It also helped that the original footage, shot by a team of professionals, was so good.
My main frustrations with iMovie 1 were its lack of support for anything but DV stream video, its limited clip-tray space, its unwillingness to run on more than one monitor, and its inability to view the audio track waveforms visually, so that I could coordinate the video more precisely with the sound. (All of these shortcomings were fixed in iMovie 2, except for the multiple monitor support.) I liked the multi-level undo and the overall ease of using iMovie, compared to Strata or Premiere.
In iMovie, the video never played smoothly on my old Mac, even though it played fine in QuickTime Player after export. For that reason, and because much of my audio software doesn't work in Mac OS X (my normal environment), I worked under Mac OS 9.2.2, with virtual memory off, for the whole process. I also have 416 MB of RAM - I recommend lots of it, whether your machine is old or new.
Once I returned to Mac OS X, I discovered that iMovie 2 (which comes with Mac OS X) works rather well even on my old G3. Luckily, iMovie projects move seamlessly between iMovie 1 and 2, and between Mac OS 9 and X - you can even, it seems, open iMovie 2 projects in iMovie 1, which is impressive.
Looking Back on the Journey -- So how did it turn out? See for yourself:
Editing this, my first real video, reminds me of the joy I felt when I first got into desktop publishing 15 years ago or so and ditched Letraset forever. It was fun, but the rest of my family (not to mention the band) is probably glad I'm finished - for now.
[Derek K. Miller is a homemaker, writer, editor, Web guy, and drummer whose wife and two daughters are pleased that he finally brought the VCR and little TV back upstairs. Derek lives in Vancover, Canada, and tries to keep his weblog interesting.]
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