How Helmet Cameras Work


A man wears a ski helmet with the GoPro camera attached to it.
A man wears a ski helmet with the GoPro camera attached to it.
© Julian Stratenschulte/dpa/Corbis

Mountain biking, skydiving and police chases are all pretty cool things to witness firsthand, but my scaredy-cat self isn't likely to partake anytime soon. Helmet cameras are the perfect go-between for people like me, who enjoy watching other people's high-thrills footage without the risk, as well as for daredevils who want to re-live their outdoorsy experiences via high-definition images and video.

Today's helmet cams are compact, sleek, lightweight and usually waterproof, but like all great modern technology they started out much differently. In fact, helmet cam pioneer, mountain biker and video enthusiast Mark Schulze kicked off the practice in 1987 by bolting an old-school VHS camera to his bike helmet. For those of you who weren't around in the '80s, such cameras were big, bulky and likely headache-inducing when carried about on one's head. Those extra pounds were just the beginning, though, since wireless technology wasn't exactly available back then, either. Schulze actually placed a VCR, connected by cables to the camera, in his backpack and schlepped that around as well. His vision was to create instructional mountain biking videos, but at some point other companies caught onto his idea and used their considerable resources to design and produce helmet cameras with less bulk and higher quality [source: Mooney]. Today, helmet cameras are widely produced by manufacturers such as GoPro, Sony and iON, among others, and are often referred to as "action cameras."

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Since then, people have dozens of uses for the camera beyond extreme sports. Helmet cameras have been used by football teams and firefighters as learning tools, or by police officers as insurance that their procedures were done by the book. Surfers and skiers get to capture beautiful footage of waves and mountains that would be impossible otherwise.

On the flip side, some people insist that helmet cams violate privacy rights, particularly in emergency situations. A township in Pennsylvania banned firefighters from using them. "I don't want somebody coming in my house and filming ... my wife might be in her negligee," was the town commissioner's memorable quote [source: Fire Rescue1]. Employers also point out that such video can increase liability, as illustrated by images of the aftermath of an Asiana Airlines crash in San Francisco, which depicted a survivor accidentally being run over by a fire rig. She was killed instantly [source: ARFF].

Despite the hesitations of some, many people are outfitting their helmets with these cool, lightweight video-making tools. Keep reading to find out who uses them, why and how you can too.

Sports Uses for Helmet Cams

The first time I saw a helmet camera in action was at my son's T-ball game, atop the enormous batting helmet of a 4-year-old as he rounded the bases for the first time ever. Although I'm sure his parents had a regular camera rolling in tandem, the helmet version forever captured his teeny-tiny perspective on that most important of days.

Back in 1991, World League of American Football quarterback Kerwin Bell was the first pro player to don a helmet camera during a game, effectively letting the audience in on the action as he called plays, scored touchdowns and evaded sacks [source: Schmitz]. Critics and players ended up rejecting the use of the technology for years, citing the potential for cheating (knowing the other team's plays) and bulk of the device itself. In 2015, it appears that the tide is turning on this school of thought, though, with arena football leagues employing live-action helmet cameras to thrill audiences [source: Ecker]. College football officials also plan to implement the technology, although more in an effort to improve coaching, since it will allow staff to see exactly what players do, making play calls easier [source: Associated Press].

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Most sports enthusiasts who use helmet cams are of the adrenaline rush variety. They careen down mountains on skis or bikes, through the clouds with their parachutes and across highways on their hogs, capturing every daredevil second along the way. Taking such footage is a way to re-live the thrills and scenery, share them with friends and family, and also an ideal method for capturing unique images of wildlife and other cool sights without having to actually stop and whip out an actual camera.

Of course, some people enjoy tempting fate, as in the case of this cyclist who leaned in and let a rattlesnake attack his helmet cam. For the record, we advise against that (All together now: Shudder). Helmet cams also allow people to capture behavior that would be otherwise difficult to fully describe, as with the case of a scuba diver who recorded his entire interaction with a curious, 12-foot (4-meter) great white shark, which he had to poke with his spear several times before he went along his merry sharky way [source: Algar].

Some extreme athletes take helmet cams to the next level, using them as fundraising tools. Jump4Heros raises funds for charities that provide support to armed forces. The team's skydivers upload breathtaking videos to show would-be donors the extraordinary lengths they go to in support of these causes [source: Coldwell].

Other Uses for Helmet Cams

This skier will get some great shots of his descent thanks to his helmet camera.
This skier will get some great shots of his descent thanks to his helmet camera.
Cultura RM/Ross Woodhall

Three types of professionals seem to get first dibs on all the cool tech toys before anyone else: the military, law enforcement/emergency responders and Batman. The good news for people using such a tool in a work capacity is that it can capture everything on irrefutable video. Unfortunately, that's also the bad news.

Why the wishy-washiness? Well, helmet cams can take away any doubt surrounding how an event went down, as evidenced by the footage of a deadly SWAT raid in Arizona [source: Echavarri]. No more relying on shaky witness testimony -- it's all there on video for the world to see, which takes a lot of pressure off of people under fire for questionable tactics. That's also a big part of the problem that many agencies and employers have with helmet cams. As much as it can protect them in cases involving suspected wrongdoing, it can also do exactly the opposite if everything wasn't followed to the letter of the law, leaving them open for criticism, lawsuits and other punishment.

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Just ask Pfc. Ted Daniels, a soldier who captured terrifying battle footage while serving in Afghanistan. His helmet cam video was never meant to be widely viewed, but ended up on a YouTube channel and quickly garnered more than 29 million views by early 2015. People were split between regarding his actions as heroic (he drew attention to himself to allow his fellow soldiers to make a getaway from Taliban shooters), or idiotic. Daniels himself said that "it wasn't the most tactically brilliant thing to do." Army higher-ups also note that the video can actually be spun by the Taliban into propaganda to further support their cause [source: Ortiz]. A similar risk is also apparent for law enforcement officials, since criminals can easily view and analyze videos to learn tricks of the trade once they become public record.

On a less terrifying level, urban bicyclists are also donning helmet cameras to both protect themselves and prove the wrongdoing of others. Everyone knows there's a lot of hearsay involved in automobile accidents, and cyclists are often blamed outright if involved. A rising number of bicycle enthusiasts are outfitting their helmets with cameras as an insurance policy of sorts, so that the actual insurance company won't give them so much grief in the event of a collision [course: Coldwell].

Some are taking it a step further, including Dave Sherry, a London cyclist who passes video footage of poor drivers onto police for prosecution [source: Spillett]. His intentions might be good, but he's been attacked by many an angry motorist.

OK, enough about the camera uses. Here's how to buy one and shoot.

Helmet Camera Shopping and Shooting Tips

Chicago Bears quarterback Matt Blanchard (4) wears a helmet camera during the Bears Rookie Minicamp in 2013.
Chicago Bears quarterback Matt Blanchard (4) wears a helmet camera during the Bears Rookie Minicamp in 2013.
© Robin Alam/Icon SMI/Corbis

A rose by any other name is still a rose, and the same concept goes for helmet cameras. The product has a few confusing aliases, including lipstick cameras, bullet cameras and micro-video cameras. Regardless of the moniker, a true helmet camera is designed to be mounted to – you guessed it – a helmet, thereby providing the true point-of-view (POV) of the user.

Cameras come in one or two piece designs. The smallest, lightest options are the all-in-one helmet cams, which lack the sometimes-annoying cords and recording unit of the two-piece unit. However, the latter typically features a screen that helps you review footage and mount the camera correctly, so that you can shoot at the angle you want, rather than blindly winging it [source: Long].

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Here are some other features to consider [source: HDHelmet]:

  • Resolution: Shooting a POV documentary probably necessitates a higher resolution than say, capturing the aforementioned T-ball game.
  • Recording time: How much will you have?
  • Durability: Is the camera waterproof (for you extreme sporters)? Can it withstand shock?
  • Battery Time: You'll want at least five or six hours.
  • Internal memory: If doesn't have much, get a memory card.
  • Microphone: Most cameras will record sound, but if you want to record yourself talking, you'll need to get a camera with a microphone.
  • Wi-Fi (if that's important to you)
  • Accessories: You can buy helmets, straps, pole mounts and harnesses to make using the camera easier.

Once you've swiped the old credit card, it's time to learn how to use your fancy new toy. Much of the process will involve good old trial and error, especially since where and how it's mounted to your helmet will affect how shaky the video is and the angle of the footage. Since you'll likely be unable to adjust the camera in progress, you'll need to learn how to anticipate where the camera needs to be in order to get the shot you want. Here are some tips to get you started [sources: Long, Rose]:

  • Angle your camera just slightly lower than your eyes when you look straight ahead. If you're videoing your friends on their surfboards or snowboards, go even lower in some shots to capture their legs and feet.
  • Try to minimize camera shake so your viewers don't get seasick.
  • Don't only rely on your camera's POV. Get some establishing shots and interviews so that you have varying material for editing.

Author's Note: How Helmet Cameras Work

I have perpetually shaky hands, which exasperates my husband when viewing footage shot from my hand-held video camera. Perhaps a helmet cam is the ideal solution to our home movie woes!

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Sources

  • AARF. "SF fire chief bans helmet cams after video goes viral." San Francisco Chronicle. 2015 (March 10, 2015) http://arffwg.org/sf-fire-chief-bans-helmet-cams-after-video-goes-viral/
  • Alar, Jim. "Florida scuba diver fends off great white shark with just a spear." Tech Times. 2015 (March 10, 2015) http://www.techtimes.com/articles/7308/20140522/florida-scuba-diver-fends-off-great-white-shark-with-just-a-spear.htm
  • Associated Press. "NCAA mulls football helmet cameras, sideline computers." IndyStar. Feb. 11, 2015 (March 10, 2015) http://www.indystar.com/story/sports/college/2015/02/11/ncaa-mulls-helmet-cameras-sideline-computers/23267049/
  • Coldwell, Will. "Who dares films: Why extreme-sports fans love helmet cams." The Independent. April 12, 2012 (March 10, 2015) http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/gadgets-and-tech/features/who-dares-films-why-extremesports-fans-love-helmetmounted-cameras-7637440.html
  • Echavarri, Fernanda. "VIDEO: Helmet cam captures deadly SWAT raid." Arizona Daily Star. May 27, 2011 (March 10, 2015) http://www.policeone.com/SWAT/articles/3738927-Video-Helmet-cam-captures-deadly-SWAT-raid/
  • Ecker, Danny. "Heady view: Arena Football League adds helmet cameras." Chicago Business. Jan. 14, 2014 (March 10, 2015) http://www.chicagobusiness.com/article/20140114/BLOGS04/140119915/heady-view-arena-football-league-adds-helmet-cameras
  • FireRescue1 Staff. "Pa. commissioners ban firefighters' helmet cams." FireRescue1. March 24, 2014 (March 10, 2015) http://www.firerescue1.com/fire-products/technology/articles/1873555-Pa-commissioners-ban-firefighters-helmet-cams/
  • HDHelmet. "Helmet Camera Reviews." 2015 (March 11, 2015) http://www.hdhelmet.net/
  • Landau, Joel. "SEE IT: Cameras attached to sharks capture their point of view underwater." New York Daily News. March 4, 2014 (March 10, 2015) http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/researchers-attach-cameras-sharks-article-1.1710415
  • Long, Ben. "Capture the action with a helmet camera." MacWorld. July 20, 2009 (March 11, 2015) http://www.macworld.com/article/1141723/helmetcams.html
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  • Ortiz, Erik. "'I was scared to death.'" New York Daily News. Jan. 28, 2013 (March 10, 2015) http://www.nydailynews.com/news/world/u-s-soldier-made-helmet-cam-video-identified-article-1.1249696
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