The original action camera started as a home-sewn strap that secured a disposable camera to the user’s wrist
There are entrepreneurs who set out wanting to be entrepreneurs, and they don’t really care how they do it. And then there are entrepreneurs driven by a vision so compelling that entrepreneurship becomes a means to an end. Nick Woodman was in that latter category.
After failing with two successive startups, he just wanted to take some time off and travel and surf. While bumming around and riding waves in Indonesia, it occurred to him that it might be cool to take some point-of-view pictures while surfing. Hardly any such photos existed, mainly because, news flash: It is virtually impossible to handle a camera while surfing. Wanting to rectify this situation, Woodman took a busted surfboard leash and a rubber band and jury-rigged a strap that would hold a disposable waterproof film camera from Kodak securely on his wrist.
Camera, Action: The original Hero had a hook mechanism that held the camera flat on the user’s wrist when the device wasn’t being used to take photos. Photo: GoPro
Woodman thought other surfers might be interested in documenting their exploits, and he figured he might make a little cash selling straps. He bought some blocks of plastic, found a Dremel tool, borrowed his mom’s sewing machine, and went to work. He combined some some O-rings, the Dremeled plastic mount, and a simple but clever clasp mechanism of his own design [see photo] that would hold the camera flat on the wrist. When you released the clasp, the camera would flip up. The surfer could take a picture, and then fold the camera back flat and hook the clasp back on. It worked swimmingly.
“I thought it would be enough to help people mount a single-use, waterproof camera to their wrists, and that alone would be a massive leap forward, enabling surfers and ultimately other athletes to wear a camera to capture their activities from their viewpoints, as opposed to relying on a third-person cameraman viewing from the beach with a long lens,” he told IEEE Spectrum.
Shooting From the Wrist: GoPro founder Nick Woodman (top) demonstrates an early prototype of his action camera around 2001. A drawing for U.S. Patent 6,955,484 B2 (bottom) for that device indicates its key components. Photos: Top:GoPro; Bottom: GoPro/U.S. Patent and Trademark Office
He was onto something, but getting there was going to be harder than he thought. It turned out that nominally waterproof cameras were really merely water resistant. “Waterproof cameras weren’t designed for the high forces of jetting water,” Woodman explains. “Before GoPro, there wasn’t a waterproof camera built that you could slap down into the water with excessive force and not have the jetting water leak in and destroy the camera. I wasn’t going to sell many straps if what I’d designed was a camera-killer. So I needed a camera, but I don’t know how to build a camera. I could barely build a strap.”
Woodman began searching online for someone who was already building a truly waterproof camera. He went to camera shows, and searched online some more. Eventually he found a manufacturer in China with a suitable film camera. Happily enough, the Hotax Manufacturing Co. was willing to do the work, but obviously, it would need the design for the camera mount and strap.
Compact, Rugged, Waterproof: GoPro cameras made almost everything photographable. A kayaker (above) takes his GoPro out for a wet, bumpy ride in 2014. Photo: Mic Smith/Alamy
“I had no CAD [computer-aided design] training,” Woodman says. “I still can’t do CAD. I did the best I could with blocks of plastic and a Dremel, and I hand-carved the attach points and fitment pieces and hot-glued them to their camera, then FedExed it to the company in China.”
“They emailed me an .IGS file, a simple CAD file, but I didn’t know what an .IGS file was. I googled it and downloaded a viewer, and I remember the thrill of seeing my ideal camera, the first GoPro camera, on my screen, in 3D, and being able to rotate it around, and thinking, ‘Wow, we might actually be able to build this thing.’”
Hotax told Woodman it needed a $5,000 fee to pay for the mold, and Woodman realized he still had no idea if the company he was working with was legitimate.
“I did the math, and it was going to be more expensive to take a trip to validate the company than it was to just pay the $5,000 and cross my fingers that they’d make the mold and make the product. But they built it, and the first Hero camera was born,” Woodman says. That first model, introduced in 2004, shot 35-mm film. The first digital model, known simply as the Digital Hero, came out in 2006.
Woodman and GoPro democratized sports photography. Their simple, rugged camera allowed anyone to share their experiences in a way that was just not possible before. If the videos on the Internet seem dominated by kitten and GoPro footage, at least the latter are absorbing: Gorgeous waves uncurl languidly, eagles glide majestically, stunts are performed insanely. Plus, the Best Dog Video Ever.
It’s a point of pride for Woodman that GoPro’s cameras, which progressed from film to digital video, now include four different models, along with gimbals and a drone, and are increasingly capable, with continuously improving video resolution and wireless connectivity options. He’s also proud of their indestructibility. Toward the end of a discussion with a reporter, he makes a sincere request: “Try to kill a GoPro. I challenge you.”
An earlier version of this story indicated that there were “six different” GoPro models. The actual number is four; the other two models were older ones no longer manufactured by GoPro and which were being sold by third parties.