Last week I got a HoverCam X300 document camera. Okay, my department got a HoverCam. But I’ve been using it pretty much all the time. For all the things that Facebook tried to sell me and failed (lately it keeps telling me I should enroll in rabbi school) it succeeded in the HoverCam, which I actually found through Facebook ads. The problem, though, is that this thing is so new that there’s almost no information on it besides previews from magazines and a couple video “reviews” that look kind of like promotional videos from the manufacturer itself, and so when we bought it it was a small gamble. We won. It works great. So here’s my review of the camera.
The HoverCam is essentially a metal tube. Half of the top flips up to reveal a camera and six LED lights. The bottom contains most of the weight—I haven’t weighted the HoverCam but I can tell you that it’s much lighter than my ThinkPad X200 tablet, which is 3.5lbs, and definitely any of my students’ textbooks—so that the whole L-shaped thing stays up. I haven’t had anyone knock the camera down yet so I don’t know how durable/stable it is under duress. It does look very sleek when closed or open; in fact a lot of my students thought that it was a designer lamp when I had the LED but not the camera on.
It comes with a USB cable and a “scanner mat” with markings on it that lets you know where to place, say, a business card or an A4 sheet of paper under the camera for it to appear straight and centered. I’ve never used the mat myself but it does seem like a good idea. Honestly, though, I didn’t expect the mat because this thing was $200. I didn’t even expect the USB cable, given how printer manufacturers and whatever are nowadays. But I was pleasantly surprised when I opened the box. In fact, the USB cable is a standard USB A to B cable that you can find in dollar stores and not one with a crazy proprietary plug that you find in most USB-powered gadgets nowadays. That made me love the camera before I even plugged it in.
Working the thing is simple. You plug it in—it is USB powered so it has but one cord—and load up the software, and poof, the image appears on screen. You can fullscreen it if you were projecting/presenting, and there’s a big red camera button that lets you take a picture immediately. There is a switch on the camera itself to turn the LEDs on/off. That’s it. It’s really dead simple. I haven’t had a colleague who isn’t well versed in technology handle it yet, though, but anyone who has used a scanner would find this actually extra-easy and much more user-friendly than a scanner.
The camera is 3 megapixels, which seems crazy in this world of 17,000 megapixel or whatever cameras. But when you think about it, if you’re projecting on a 1024px by 768px screen 1600px by 1200px is not only enough but looks really good. The images even look good on my widescreen laptop. Here are some images I took in the last few days:
The top images were taken in the same room. The top left one was of a calculus textbook taken under a small window with an overcast sky outside and florescent lighting. The top right one was a record of a project demo taken away from the window, with only half the florescent lights on in the room (so students can see the projector) and the internal LEDs on the HoverCam switched on. The bottom left one was a copy of student work taken in a room with large windows (but they were at least 15 ft from the HoverCam) and florescent lights. All these pictures are full sized and taken inside the classrooms I teach in. You can definitely read all the details (and in fact I read them on screen at about 50% zoom) in all the documents.
What I don’t have is an example of a HoverCam document that looks too dim. I did use the HoverCam in a basement classroom and although you can still read the pages (of handwriting) projected on screen it was definitely dim. Bumping up the brightness and contrast from the software controls helped a lot, though. One of my colleagues who regularly teaches in a basement classroom said that she thinks the HoverCam needs more lighting for her as well. With reasonably lit classrooms, though, it’s not a problem. In fact, the HoverCam’s 3MP camera with the LEDs is much better than my Motorola Droid’s 5MP camera with flash.
The bottom right picture is what happens when you try to hold a baby under a document camera. It’s also the only blurry picture as the HoverCam is a document camera and not a moving baby camera. Also it seems that the camera is configured so that its focus distance is about the height of the camera, which makes a lot of sense, but it also means that if you try to make something bigger by moving it closer to the camera it will make it fuzzier as well.
It’s not meant for photographing babies, clearly. But it photographs documents really well. (Okay, it doesn’t photograph things in 600dpi so printing them full size will be unpleasant. But if you’re photographing a piece of paper so you can print it you may want to consider using a photocopier. They make those, you know?)
The biggest problem with the HoverCam is that there is a visible delay/lag between the document and the screen at 1600 by 1200 pixels. In fact, my students were really amused by it when I started writing on a sheet of paper I projected and the image only updated once every second or so—they stayed after class so they can try to write “MAGIC!” on a sheet of paper under the HoverCam and write it fast enough so it appears all at once. At high resolution the HoverCam is definitely not usable for live demos. When you turn the resolution down to 800 by 600 (or even better, 640 by 480) then the lag becomes insignificant, but the image quality is proportionally lower. But then again, 800 by 600 projected on a standard resolution projector is pretty good. And if you can afford higher res projectors then you can likely spend the money on a good ELMO.
This seems to imply that taking video with a HoverCam at above 800 by 600 would be a bad idea. I’ve never tried it, though, so I don’t have any video samples.
Software and Drivers
The HoverCam does not come with software; you have to download it yourself. However I was really impressed with the fact that Windows 7 recognized it as a camera/webcam immediately which meant that any software that uses webcams (such as Skype) can use the HoverCam. That means that you can Skype a document or something; I can see why it may be useful but it’s not a function I need. You can also tilt the HoverCam sideways and use it as an emergency webcam (which I did when a colleague decided that I needed a new Facebook profile picture right now in the office stat). But for me the main use for that is to create videos that involve both a physical document and my screen with software like Camtasia Studio.
Back to the HoverCam software. Their main software is actually an Adobe Air application. This means that you can download and use it on any computer that supposed Air (which is like Flash). The application is great. It comes with a file manager that lets you manage shots taken. In the camera interface you’ll have the ability to adjust the brightness, contrast, saturation, resolution and whatever on the fly. At 1600 by 1200 (scan mode) there is a visible delay on the changes like moving an image. But then that shouldn’t matter at all since you likely won’t change the settings mid-class/presentation. The software also works for non-HoverCam web cams, by the way.
HoverCam Flex (the software package) also connects to Evernote, Picasa, Dropbox and Google OCR. It doesn’t seem to do Flickr or OneNote, which are things I use. But for the case of OneNote it is totally fine since I can easily crop to clipboard in HoverCam Flex and paste in a notebook page of my choosing easily. And I don’t anticipate putting classroom material up on Flickr along with my vacation photos. It also exports images to PDF, which is awesome for people who need the function but don’t want to pay separately for a PDF generator.
The two issues with the software I found are that it can’t do video and that the file manager acts somewhat unlike expectations. The fact that it doesn’t record video is a platform issue. Adobe Air just can’t do it so it’s not the HoverCam folks’ fault. They are porting the Air application to a local app called HoverCam Express now; you can download Express to make videos but relative to the Flex app the interface is… well… crap. Hopefully that will change in the future. The file manager in Flex is also somewhat unwieldy sometimes. For example, right clicking and choosing “copy” brings you to a “save this file as” export dialog that exports the file to a location of your choosing, but you can’t rename the file in the process. I’m not too concerned about that since I didn’t even expect the file manager to be there; for me it’s an extra value thing that I don’t use very often but could come in handy so I’m not really complaining.
There does seem to be a bug with the software where the image appears in some low resolution (320 by 240, it seems like) in HoverCam Flex even though a high resolution is selected—it has happened to me twice. However restarting the software solved the problem so it was not big deal. And even at that resolution I was able to project student work fairly well (as in the class could read it) in a basement classroom.
Cost and Opportunities
The biggest selling point about these X300s is that they are $200 (or less, if you can get in on a sale or a deal). Unlike traditional document camera they are affordable. Granted, they require computers and projectors to function but those things are increasingly common. The thing about affordable technology is that nobody (except hardware developers and marketing folks) seriously thinks about how to use it in the classroom unless they get their hands on it. Asking my colleagues “what would you do with a document camera?” last year met with mostly silence. However, when I showed them that a document camera is sitting on a desk they immediately started thinking about how they could use it (and how it could be used poorly as well) and came up with a whole bunch of ideas.
Practically, this $200 device is saving at least half an hour of class time every week per class section for me. The whole “all right kids lets put your homework/problems up on the board” exercise in math classrooms become completely unnecessary since students can just slide a page under a HoverCam and present their work by pointing to it on the board with a $4 laser pointer. It also saves prep time as I no longer need to scan a printed page in or photocopy it to share it to the entire class.
Basically, the X300 is a great device. We’ve spent $200 on way less useful things in the past. It works as advertised and actually performs better than I expected from a $200 document camera. It’s not perfect, of course. The biggest problem is the lag time between camera and screen and the second biggest issue is that it may not provide sufficient lighting. Also, the company seems to be slightly overwhelmed since it took them a week to ship out my camera for a total of two weeks between order and delivery—which I guess is technically 10 business days but since I’m so used to Amazon Prime it was slightly disappointing.
The HoverCam is a great classroom tool (and I’m not being paid to say this; my motivation in writing this is that this is an awesome thing and I want you to know about it, and perhaps also if more people bought them their prices would go down and more schools can afford them). I don’t recommend it if you want to do live demos with them but if all you want is to capture and/or project flat things it works really well for the price.