Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Game Changer in Document Camera Industry: HoverCam X300

The HoverCam is a game changing document camera. What's a document camera, you ask? Do you remember the OJ Simpson trial when Judge Ito said, "Put it on the Elmo." It's a camera mounted on an arm used in courtrooms, classrooms, video conference rooms and meeting rooms to show large-screen, live images of documents and 3-D objects when connected to a projector. In many classrooms around the world these have replaced overhead projectors. Ten years ago, the products cost $2,000 and up and had trouble displaying text clearly when showing a full-sized document. But in recent years, the image quality has improved and prices have dropped to the $500 range for some models. Schools have been buying them by the thousands.

Fast forward to 2010. With the advancement of CMOS technology and a decrease in camera component costs, an innovative company based in San Diego, CA has brought to market a high-resolution document camera that sells for $199, which has Elmo and other document camera manufacturers (and their dealers) shaking their heads in disbelief. (Full disclosure: I found the HoverCam product so attractive and the company's CEO Ji Shen so intriguing that I'm consulting the company to assist it reach the next level.

About the HoverCam: it's a high resolution (true, 3-mega pixel) document camera and scanner with no competition in the $199 price range. The company's aim is one in every classroom. From what I observed at the ISTE education technology conference in Denver at the end of June, teachers were crowding around the booth and buying units from the show floor. "We're now seeing large follow-on orders from schools," said Mr. Shen. For all the schools and districts that haven’t been able to purchase document cameras in the past the HoverCam presents an opportunity.

The technology involves a 3-mega pixel CMOS, USB camera. The camera is HD 720p compatible, so the images are surprisingly clear. (An example taken with the camera is an image of the New York Times at left.) Power is supplied by the USB cable (i.e., no separate power cord required which is convenient). The HoverCam must be connected to a computer to be used. It’s Mac & PC compatible. Each unit is also a scanner. A key to the HoverCam's appeal is proprietary software which allows the user to easily zoom, switch resolutions, switch between “presentation” mode and “scanning” mode and allow one touch recording of voice & video.

In addition to the $199 X300 product, Pathway Innovations & Technologies, Inc. (maker of the HoverCam) has also designed two higher price, higher value-added products. One is the Kudos 3 ($259) , which incorporates 2 cameras and allows picture-in-picture viewing and “head shots.” Kudos is ideal for use as a webcam with Skype, distance learning applications and recording videos with a talking head inserted inside the document image. The other product is the X500 ($279), which is a 5-megapixel scanning camera. According to Mr. Shen, this unit has fantastic image quality and is great for scanning (because of the very high resolution). He said some schools are also buying it as a “document camera” – although in the case of the 5-megapixel camera, the refresh rate is relatively slow at less than 10 frames/sec (whereas the X300 with the 3-megapixel camera has a “fast” refresh rate so live images are smooth).

Mr. Shen says he dreams of designing a "consumer version" of a document camera for the masses that he calls an "office camera" or "OfficeCam." Although he won't disclose any details publicly at this time, except to say that his company will make an announcement at the 2011 CES Consumer Electronics Show and that the OfficeCam device will incorporate the multiple funtions of scanning, presenting, video conferencing and more into one unit.

In summary, the HoverCam X300 key specifications are: high-resolution document camera, USB 2.0 with UVC, portable, 2lbs., UXGA resolution, active pixels 1,600 H X 1,200 V, 720p High Definition video and audio recording, built-in microphone, image capture, built-in lighting, 0-360 degree image rotation, 2X digital zoom, image scanning, contrast control, brightness control, adjustable resolution from 640 X 480 to 2,000 X 1,600, Mac & PC compatible, 25 frames/sec refresh rate in VGA mode and 12 frames/sec in 720p high definition video mode.

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