This is part of IEEE Spectrum's Special Report on IEEE SPECTRUM’S HOLIDAY GIFT GUIDE 2008
I review a lot of products and can usually find something to complain about: battery life, ease of use, quality, price, something. So while the idea of a snorkeling mask with a built-in camera sounded great, I expected to find at least a few flaws in the Liquid Image Underwater Digital Camera Mask. I failed. And in the process my kids and I had a great time.
The Camera Mask is a slightly bulky version of a standard snorkeling mask with a built-in camera system that can take VGA-resolution video at 18 to 25 frames per second or still images up to 5.0 megapixels. The camera’s 16-megabyte internal memory can be supplemented with a removable Micro SD card. The system requires 2 AAA batteries.
The version I tested purported to fit anybody over 8 years old, setting off my every skeptical instinct. I’ve spent way too much time in dive shops struggling to outfit my kids with snorkeling masks that won’t leak. How could one mask fit me, my husband, my delicate-featured daughter, and my two sons and their big, round heads, not to mention two friends of theirs who joined us in testing? But this mask fit all seven of us, ranging in age from 10 to 54, without leaking. That alone would have been worth a good chunk of its $100 sticker price.
The Camera Mask’s user interface was simple to figure out and use, even for the youngest kids. A red button turns the power on and off and switches modes between still and video. A yellow one acts as a shutter button or as a video record/pause button, depending on which mode you’re in. The mask has two LEDs, visible when the mask is on: red for still-photo mode and blue for video mode. The blue light blinks when recording—a feature I could use on my regular video camera; in bright sunlight I can never make out the ”REC” and ”PAUSE” words on the screen and often miss shots as a result. A small LCD, visible only when you take the mask off, also shows the recording mode, along with battery life remaining and the number of files currently stored. Guidelines painted on the mask help you center the image for the camera. I found I usually forgot to do this, but as long as I was looking directly at something, the picture was fine. Despite their simplicity, the two buttons let me do everything I needed to do.
Family and friends tested the Camera Mask in a swimming pool in the hills near Santa Rosa, Calif., during a sunny weekend in September. A 2-gigabyte card (about $15) can hold 1700 stills or nearly two hours of video. In two days of playing with the mask and recording countless underwater sequences of kids goofing around, we barely used half that capacity. And the batteries were still going strong.
The image quality underwater was amazing. I took clear shots of people and objects from as much as 3 or 4 meters away. Colors popped. I longed for a Caribbean ocean filled with tropical fish to take advantage of the great color. I settled for throwing pool toys around.
Video and still images taken above the water weren’t as good. They looked blurry or washed out by glare. A spokesman for Liquid Image told me that water droplets or smudges on the lens catch the sun on bright days; cleaning the lens would have helped. Also, the camera is optimized to record images at high saturation. Underwater, this makes up for the fact that colors wash out quickly when objects move away from the camera. Out of the water, though, it can make images appear burned out. I can’t really picture myself wearing the Camera Mask to shoot pictures around town, so this is a smart trade-off.
I waited until we were all done swimming for the day and I was dry (not in every sense—I poured a glass of wine) before I attempted to transfer the images from the Camera Mask to my Macintosh computer. I anticipated some bugs in at least this part of the process. Again, I was wrong. When I connected the mask to the computer with its USB cable, the mask automatically turned itself on, and the computer recognized it as an external drive containing a folder. I dragged the folder onto my desktop and checked my e-mail for 10 minutes while the files transferred. The images opened as JPEGs. When I clicked on the videos, they launched in QuickTime.
My only disappointment? That I’m not going to be snorkeling in tropical waters anytime soon. Besides getting some great vacation videos, I think for once I’d be the person carrying the gotta-get-it gadget, at least for the flipper set.
To Probe Further
For more articles and special features, go to IEEE SPECTRUM’S HOLIDAY GIFT GUIDE 2008