Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Dream catcher

For about seven and a half years, I had a little dream catcher on a leather strap hanging from my rearview mirror. I got it when I bought (leased) my previous car, and it moved over to the new one, a later model of the same kind, when I bought that nearly four years ago. It had a bright yellow feather when I got it that was slowly bleached white over the years by the sun. The only reason I know that is that old photos I took way back when show a startlingly canary-yellow feather. Photos are like that.

Recently, I took it down. I had a pang of guilt doing it, but the thing was getting old and drying out. The leather straps cracked just trying to get it set up in the new car, and that was nearly four years ago. What prompted me to replace it was that I got a really cute Pinkie Pie Christmas ornament that I wanted to hang from the mirror. Much as I liked it, she weighed a few ounces, and when she got swinging, she really took your eye off the road. A little reluctantly, I took her down too, a couple of weeks ago. But, again, that was prompted by a replacement.

This one wasn’t anything to hang from the mirror. It’s a dash cam... a different kind of “dream catcher”. Specifically, it’s a Papago P3. They’re not easy to get in North America, and I ordered it from Taiwan. I suppose I could have kept Pinkie flying, but having her wallop the dash cam every time I hit a bump didn’t seem like a good idea.

How did this come about. Well, a friend sent me a YouTube link to a crash compilation video. A large number of them were from Russia. Now, I’ve been hitching my various cameras up to my windshield and videoing certain drives for years. But it was a rare occasion I planned for. These things were so numerous, and the drives so casual, that I started thinking, nah, there’s no way they’re doing that. Someone’s learned to rig up something permanent. Somewhere in the back of my head the term “dash cam” was either coined, or vaguely remembered, and I started looking around. Sure enough, there are scores of models and have been for several years now. I did a lot of research into models with features I wanted and ultimately settled on the Papago P3 (review here).

(Incidentally, the Russians apparently have a vogue for dash cams because there's been a rash of hood-divers throwing themselves onto slow-moving cars and suing the borscht out of drivers... hence the proliferation of "crazy Russian driver" videos on YouTube at the moment.)

It’ll be nice to have if I get in an accident, particularly if I’m not at fault. But principally I want it because I want to record what the city and its environs look like, in the hopes of passing that along to future generations. So often, I’ve driven through something in town, thought I should go back and record what it was like at least passing through, and then forgot. This way, it’s there. Also, it means less set-up for the drives I do plan. This summer, I mean to use it to video a lot of the roads in York Region that are, for the moment, two-lane rural blacktop, but will probably be six-lane thoroughfares through subdivisions by the time I retire. I’m fascinated by photos people took years ago of streets I’ve lived near, even ones taken when I was living there years ago, because I either wasn’t there, or else didn’t take notice back then because it was too ordinary. Having something that takes the planning out of doing that really appeals to me.

I’ve already used it to add a few things to the Millennium Project. The video of my very first crossing of the new bridge carrying 16th Avenue over the Little Rouge River, found a few posts back here on this blog, is a case in point. I’ve since videoed my first drive on Sheppard Avenue under the new railroad underpass at Agincourt on its newly-opened westbound lanes. I also saved video of a tree coming down as I drove past on Victoria Park Avenue. No big deal, but it was such a strange occurrence, I just had to add it.

I’ve written a whole lot there just to get around to my ultimate point, and that is that I’m truly amazed at the progress camera technology’s taken in a very short sweep of time. Because I was updating my Agincourt project, I had a look at the first video I shot there, just as construction was beginning. If I remember correctly, that was in August, 2010... not even three years ago. (Actually, I just checked the blog; it was July. But yeah, 2010.) For the work I did that day, I was using three cameras. I had the HX5V and the W1 for large and 3D photos from the ground respectively, and I had the old G9 mounted on the windshield to record driving over the level crossing, something that wouldn’t be possible for much longer (and, in fact, now isn’t). A nostalgic moment even then because for me, that level crossing always meant I was heading into the part of town my buddy Dig and I would go to for a few beers around the time I moved to North York, now nearly 13 years ago. But anyway... I was watching the video I’d shot of the level crossing and was a little disappointed. The video was mono and 640x480. I knew that, of course, on an academic level, but I was kind of shocked to go back to it and see what that implied. The G9 was state-of-the-art at the start of 2008, when full 30 fps video at 640x480, without short time limits like 15 or 30 seconds, meant you had a camera with some serious chug. Of course, already by that day in 2010 I could have done better with the HX5V, but I had the G9 in the window because I didn’t figure the video quality would be an issue, I guess. I wish I’d used the HX5V.

When I compared it to the P3 video, the difference is sobering. And the P3 isn’t even particularly high end as cameras go; it’s a journeyman object made to record practical video on the fly; nothing more. But even so, the video quality is clear and is full HD (1920x1080 at 30 fps), and the sound (while still mono) is excellent and sharp;  I would even say textured. A shame it’s not stereo, but really, just recording ambient sounds inside the car, why would it be. Where it really adds something to the project, and why I chose it, is because of what it logs. At the bottom of the video, it records your GPS location down to a ten thousandth of a degree, your heading in the eight cardinal and ordinal directions, your speed moment by moment, and the time and date. It also creates an NMEA log file, which includes information on the jostling the camera experienced in three axes. One of its jobs is to automatically lock the current file when it senses a collision so it won’t be overwritten (it records in 5 minute file chunks and when the card is full, serially overwrites the oldest file); as it happens, it also stores that data in the NMEA file, which can give you some sense of how rough the road was, exactly where turns were made, and things like that. It’s also far better at picking up GPS signals than any other system I’ve had so far; on average, well under a minute after the car starts. I’ve had trips where even my PhotoTrackr logger, which does nothing but record GPS info, has been 15 to 20 minutes into a trip before it found its GPS ass with both electronic hands. As for the GPS-enabled HX5V and S100, well, I can tell stories of missions with them where they never managed to get a fix (and they don’t record that information for videos in any case). So I’m quite pleased with that.

I believe it’s possible to turn off the different kinds of information being written into the field of the video, and let people depend on the NMEA file for all that, but I’m probably not going to do that. The P3 records just about everything I’d like it to in the video, something I’ve wished for for a long time, and as such its videos can stand alone. No doubt there will eventually be computers that can “watch” the video, read the numbers, and reconstruct the course on a map just from the video. I think having that information in there, scrawled innocuously at the bottom of the view across the end of my hood, will be of real value to nerds like me one day... down the road. :)


jim said...

Dang. Now I want one of these.

Bridgewater said...

I'm with you, Jim--gotta get me one-a those--with my focus (heh, heh) perhaps more on the aesthetic possibilities than on the practical considerations of the Russians or the specs that interest you two technerds. I'm not like Ike and art--he didn't know anything about it but just knew what he liked--but like you, I do have photographic projects based on certain themes, and I have at least a primitive idea of what characteristics a dashcam would have to have for my needs.
As for dreamcatchers and other dash trinkets, never had one-a them, but before things got really hostile we had a No-W sticker on the back bumper of the pickup; "Free Bates" is about as controversial as we've been lately.

barefoot hiker said...

I always wanted to get one of those magnetic ribbons that you always see on gas-guzzlers that say "Support Our Troops", but I wanted one that said "IMPORT Our Troops". :)

Another one I always wished someone had made would have been a silhouette of a soldier with his arms open to his running daughter with the other members of the family in the background saying "Support our troops: bring them home".

I was never really one for bumper stickers... my dad always held they'd count against you at trade-in time... but I find that in recent years I've slowly acquired quick a collection. First there were two county shields from Ireland in the rear window and an EU star ring "IRL" sticker; then a Bear Nuts sticker from a book I ordered of an online comic I read; then magnetic rocket with SCIENCE written in it; and finally a Rainbow Dash sticker in the driver's side of the rear window. So I guess, yeah, I've come a long way in customizing the back of the car. :)