I have been enjoying a James Bond lifestyle of late. Not the ladykilling, Martini-drinking part – more one of action, adventure and the deployment of ingenious gadgets.
In the Bond films, Q supplies the latest gear and 007 goes about testing and generally smashing it to smithereens in the process. In my case, I got to meet the people behind the newest camera gadgets and found them both inventive and daredevil by nature.
First, I met up with the team from Sony Electronics on an airfield near Monterey, California, where I screeched around a course in a McLaren and a Jaguar. I was no match for Phil Molyneux, Sony’s US president, however, who tore up the track in record time.
I left in a huff, leaping aboard a helicopter that swept over Monterey Bay before delivering me to a hillside in Carmel Valley. My mission was to test Sony’s latest cameras in extreme conditions – in particular, the HDR-AS15 Action Cam. This is the first serious entry by a big electronics company into a booming category dominated by entrepreneurs. These small “point-of-view” cameras that skiers, surfers, cyclists and extreme-sports enthusiasts like to fix on themselves or their equipment to record their exploits could also be attached to a wider audience with the right marketing.
The cameras offer wide-angle 170-degree viewpoints, high-definition pictures and enable great effects such as stop-motion or super-slow-motion videos.
Molyneux has pioneered Sony’s development of the Action Cam to attract a younger demographic. The AS15 is small enough to fit in the palm and weighs only 3.2oz.
It features a Carl Zeiss lens, Sony’s excellent 16 megapixel Exmor sensor, an effective SteadyShot image stabilisation feature and very good low-light performance.
It also has Wi-Fi to transfer videos to a Play Memories app on your mobile phone so you can watch and share them. I tried this on my Sony Xperia TL – the “Bond phone” used by Daniel Craig in Skyfall – but found the process of linking them complicated. You also cannot use the phone app as a viewfinder or to adjust settings on the linked camera (a useful aid when available as these action cams are so tiny they do not have viewfinders and there are either tiny LCD screens or none at all to help adjust settings).
The camera also seemed a little less than rugged with its plastic casing and Sony is wisely offering $380 bundles such as “Skydiving” and “Snowboarding” that include a strong waterproof case and appropriate mounts.
I was next invited to BMX dirt and street biking and skating contests in San Francisco, featuring the sports’ stars. Eluding these challenges with secret-agent dexterity, I instead tracked down Giovanni Tomaselli, founder of event sponsor iON Worldwide.
Tomaselli bought back the camera company he sold to the contract manufacturer Flextronics in order to pursue his dream of designing such a device.
His first-generation Air Pro iON is cylinder-shaped for streamlining. It feels heavier than the Sony, but this was with a mount attached and the entire casing is waterproof so there is no need to add a protective case.
Other features I like include the simple on-off slider and the way the camera vibrates when it is turned on. This helps you to manage the camera if it is on top of your helmet and you do not want to take off your ski gloves.
There is also a Wi-Fi cap (one of the interchangeable “podz” for the camera) in a $350 bundle that links to smartphone and iPad apps that allow viewing, editing and sharing of videos and provide a live viewfinder function.
I also met Marc Barros, a keen skier who co-founded Contour, an eight-year-old action-cam maker. Its latest cylindrical $400 Contour +2 camera has a rugged build and a fat slider switch to turn it on. GPS is built in to record location data and Bluetooth connects you to an app that allows your iPhone to start and stop recording, plus act as a viewfinder. A waterproof case is included.
Finally, I received an invitation from GoPro, the leading action-cam maker, asking me to jump out of an aircraft, scuba dive, or race motorbikes to test their new camera. Instead, I went in search of GoPro’s elusive founder Nick Woodman, eventually tracking him down to a company party at a theme park in Silicon Valley, where everyone seemed to be using the Hero3 camera to record the rides.
He started out 10 years ago, working on a 35mm wrist camera to record surfing adventures. Use of the cameras was now getting much wider, he said – surgeons fixed them to their foreheads to record operations and Felix Baumgartner had five GoPros with him when he skydived from the edge of space.
I love the design and feel of the Hero – at 2.6 ounces, it is a miniature old-style camera rather than a cylinder and feels very rugged. There is a multiplicity of mounts and an LCD touchscreen can be snapped on the back. A smartphone app can also give a video preview and access to camera settings.
With the Hero3, a Wi-Fi “BacPac” for the camera is done away with and the chip is built in. The $400 Black Edition includes a waterproof case, assorted mounts and a Wi-Fi remote. It can shoot in Ultra HD – four-times the resolution of 1080p Full HD.
My 007-style exploits ended in ignominy in the back garden at home, where I was reduced to running around with all four cameras at once with my 14-year-old son, jumping up and down a lot and then plunging into a darkened room. Our conclusions: the picture quality on all four was excellent, but the GoPro had the edge and its sound recording was clearest. Sony offered the sharpest image stabilisation and was easily the best in low-light conditions.
The cameras are all a bit fiddly in terms of mounts, settings and apps that still need some work. But they are evolving so fast that soon you will not have to be James Bond, Q or an extreme-sports enthusiast to want to use them.