Mum Cam: Testing a Wearable Camera. Panasonic HX-A100 Review
You may have noticed we’ve been experimenting with using more video recently so are on the look out for innovations that help make it easier to gather footage, bring a new angle or show an activity in a different way. In this post we review a Panasonic HX-A100 wearable camera, a device that soon came to be to known as Mum Cam.
Ever wondered how your mum sees the world?
“Shall we call it Mum Cam?” asks Hannah as Kirstie puts the strange headset on, wedging a small cigar sized camera between her left cheek and ski helmet.
It seems appropriate. As Kirstie turns the camera on we use one of our smart phones to connect to it via wi-fi and suddenly we can see the world as Kirstie sees it. It’s slightly wonky to start with – a diagonal slash of snow, sky and ski pole, a boot searching for a ski, a glove dropping in the slush – but then with a little adjustment on the headset we manage to straighten things up. And as Kirstie looks at us and presses record, we stare back at ourselves on the tiny smartphone screen. So this is how she sees us; this is Mum Cam.
A ski test for a wearable camera
We are out skiing in the Catalan Pyrenees, as ever trying to capture something of the experience to share on blog and YouTube. If you’ve been following us closely this past year you may have noticed we’ve upped the amount of video we’re publishing as we look for more imaginative and creative ways to share our experiences and encourage others to do the same.
But it’s something of a challenge combining having an experience with capturing it on video, especially when doing something active like skiing, so we’re on the lookout for kit which can help with that. Which is why we were delighted to be asked to try out a new wearable headcam from Panasonic, the HX-A100 Wearable Camera.
What is the Panasonic HX-A100?
The Panasonic HX-A100 is a small, wi-fi enabled, wearable HD camera, designed for ‘point of view’ hands-free shooting using a smartphone (not provided) to control and monitor the device. The simple camera unit mounts on a plastic headset and is connected by cable to a small control unit that sits in a pouch you strap to your arm. If that all sounds a bit strange, well, it is an unusual set up and the camera on your cheek takes a little getting used to (unless you’re a rock star used to strutting your stuff on stage with wearable mics and earpieces). The kit claims to be waterproof (to 1.5m for 30 minutes) and dustproof, making it suited for use during the kind of outdoor and adventure filming we do.
There is no viewfinder or monitoring; the control unit simply allows you to turn the camera and wifi on and off, put the unit into video record, take a still or lock the keys to prevent accidental switching. For full control and monitoring you need to use a smartphone (iPhone or Android) and the free downloadable Panasonic ‘Image’ app that connects to the camera via wifi. With the smartphone and app you can remotely preview what the camera is shooting, switch between normal and wide angle shooting modes, take stills, review footage and delete files. Recorded files are stored on a removable micro SD card in the control unit. Using the app you can apparently download files to your smartphone or upload them to sharing sites but we didn’t try these features preferring to just take the SD card out to extract the files for editing.
Two test scenarios
To give the camera a proper outing we took it out skiing and gave it to Kirstie to wear and operate. We wanted to get a Mum’s view of the skiing and see what the camera could produce in an active setting, in the cold (and possibly wet) and under different lighting conditions.
We took it out once in the daytime, in the high mountains at Vallter 2000, and once nightskiing in La Masella, two beautiful alpine ski resorts in the Catalan Pyrenees. We set the camera up using our Android and iPhone smartphones, set it to record wide angle in HD (1920×1080) and then just tried to forget it and ski. Afterwards we downloaded the rushes and edited two videos, using only footage shot on the A100. You can see the La Masella night skiing video at the top of this post and the one of us attempting some expert skiing at Vallter 2000 follows below in a moment.
What’s the picture quality and stability like?
Overall we found the picture output to be of great quality, the camera produced sharp, well focused shots with good colour rendition and gave an interesting ‘point of view’ perspective. It performed well in both bright snowy day conditions and in the varying low light conditions of the night skiing, giving well exposed and usable footage in both scenarios.
Being head mounted, the camera takes advantage of our natural ability to stabilise our heads, and gave pretty good steady shots even while skiing downhill. Once set up the headset stayed put pretty well, although it was not terribly comfortable to wear and was fidgety to adjust. You can get an idea of the picture quality for yourself in this video edited from the A100 footage shot in Vallter 2000. Be sure to switch your YouTube player to watch them in HD to get a good idea of the quality of the footage. Remember though that what you see here is not unprocessed image quality as it has been rendered for HD upload to YouTube. Still, it looks mighty fine and gives a great sense of the colours, sounds, place and action. Don’t you think?
What’s about the sound quality?
Sound quality can be a challenge on outdoor action shoots, particularly on the move or in windy conditions. We found the recorded sound quality to be pretty good for a built in mic. It picked up clear sound from Kirstie on the move, both her voice and the sounds of her skiing. It also picked up her singing and humming but she asked me not to share that here. It wasn’t quite so good at picking up conversations with others unless they were very close, and even then sound levels were markedly different although probably usable. Sound from the wearer was crisp, clear and without much wind noise (without any special wind sock or protection), perhaps because of the camera position on the wearer’s head, snug to the cheek and further protected in this case by the ski helmet.
What about setting up, wearing and battery life?
The unit was a little bit of a hassle to set-up. While the controls on the arm unit are simple and easy to operate (even with ski gloves on), the lack of viewfinder and need to use a smartphone made it more complicated than a normal camcorder where you can quickly preview what you are going to shoot. We didn’t find it a fast pick up, point and shoot device, so you need to have time to set it up to make sure you are going to get the shots you want and not a lopsided view of the sky.
Connecting to the unit via the Panasonic app was easy on the Android phone (a Samsung Galaxy 4) but frustrating with the iPhone (4) until we discovered you had to put the iPhone into Airplane mode and then turn Wifi on for it to work reliably. Once connected the app proved a useful way of remote controlling and monitoring the camera but if you are totally dependent on the app you’re going to have to be prepared to shoot blind if your phone runs out of juice. Having both standard and wide angle set-ups gives some flexibility in shooting, but since you can’t switch modes on the control unit you have to use the wifi and smart phone app to do this. It is helpful to be able to set-up and review footage using the smartphone app although you need to allow time to familiarise yourself with how to do this and make sure you have time to do it in the field.
Lining up the unit to get a horizontal shot was made more complicated by the camera being a cylinder with no easy visual way to check it was horizontal. The camera alignment adjustments on the headset were also a bit crude and the headset proved a bit uncomfortable to wear, especially for longer shooting periods.
The camera runs off a rechargeable battery in the control unit and didn’t run out of power on either of our shoots which lasted about an hour each. The battery has to be recharged via USB and isn’t replaceable so you can’t swap in a spare if it runs out on longer shoots, although you could carry a USB battery to top it up in the field.
So, what’s our verdict?
This is an interesting potential addition to our video shooting kit. It produces good HD quality video and sound and interesting, eye level point of view footage (if properly set up). Using the (slightly uncomfortable) headset we got pretty steady footage compared to unstabilised hand held camerawork, and once set-up had hands free to ski, paddle, run or otherwise be active while continuing to shoot and narrate the action. The camera seems to have quite good low and variable light performance and has a few features we didn’t get a chance to check out, like a level shot image stabilisation feature and a slow motion video mode. It probably won’t replace our handheld camcorder or Go Pro for ease or use, flexibility of application or ability to swap batteries in and out on longer expeditions, but could be a useful extra camera for personal point of view, multiple perspective and hands free shooting.
And if Kirstie ever decides to join a digital human project and videostream her life live we’ll know the perfect Mum Cam for the job.
Would you consider wearing a camera like this? Have you ever used a point of view or sports action camera? What did you use? What did you think? Do share your tips and experience in a comment below.
Disclosure Note: Our thanks to Panasonic who provided a HX-A100 Wearable Camera for us to test out and review.