If you're the sort who does interesting things whilst wearing a helmet, things that you might like to capture on video for friends, family, or strangers to watch, it's an awfully good time to be a gadget lover. There have never been more helmet camera options than there are today, and one of the most interesting we've yet had the opportunity to affix to our lid is the Tachyon XC 3D. It's a pair of generally pedestrian cameras that, when joined at the hip, combine Voltron-like to do something rather more interesting: capture 3D renderings of your extreme endeavors. But, is an extra dimension worth the $380 price of admission? Read on to find out, and to experience the depth for yourself.
For your $380 you get not one but two Tachyon XC helmet cameras, which individually go for $180. Each packs a somewhat disappointing VGA (640 x 480) image sensor behind a 90-degree wide-angle lens, all wrapped in a durable plastic case that we have no doubt would survive a harder tumble than you. On top is a tiny, one-inch LCD that gives you a quick readout on storage space remaining, battery life, what quality mode you're in, and is also used to make failed attempts to set the internal clock -- not a fun task, believe you us.
Three buttons live beneath the screen, the biggest being the most important: Start/Stop. This should be preferably be pressed sometime before the action begins (the important "hold my beer" phase) and then again sometime after it ends (right around when someone mentions calling an ambulance). Smaller power and menu buttons sit beneath that, all three of which require a disconcerting amount of pressure to activate; you really need to push hard to get anything to register, so thank goodness a tiny remote is included. It's much easier to press and is more or less necessary for filming in 3D (we'll explain why later), but sadly can't turn the cameras either on or off, neither can you strap it on your wrist, and since it has a range of no more than a foot in sunlight, well, it's not as useful as you might hope.
On the back is a simple flip-up latch that exposes the innards. Here up to a 32GB SDHC card can be slotted in next to a battery pack comprised of dual AA batteries. AAs surely add some bulk and heft to the thing (indeed it is a bit chubbier than the ContourHD), but replacing them in the field is of course a snap, and Tachyon promises some extreme longevity: up to 12 hours on a pair of cells. We didn't get that far, but we did clock upwards of five hours and the battery gauge is showing full. Impressive. Tachyon also sells a rechargeable battery pack if you're so inclined. There's also a miniUSB port for pulling off files and a proprietary TV output jack as well.
A small rubber gasket encircles the rim of that hatch, enabling this camera to work underwater without an exterior case. To get it there you'll need to mount it, and there are plenty of ways to do that. Three mounts are included: one that slips over a goggle strap, one that could be paired with some small straps to affix it to a vented bicycle helmet or the like, and a third that would seemingly work best with Velcro backing to stick onto whatever. Order the 3D package and you get a third mount, a big, concave beast that holds the two cameras side by side and, again, seems intended for use with Velcro to attach to the top of a helmet. However, that and the latter two single-cam mounts all have standard threaded receivers on the bottom so you can pair them up with whatever kind of clamps you may have rigged up, like the suction cup mount below.
Individually the cameras aren't heavy (5.5 oz each), but slap two of them together and attach them to the 3D base and suddenly you have about a pound of equipment strapped to your head. Pair that with the considerable wind resistance the combination generates at speed and, well, it's safe to say you'll notice their presence -- unless you happen to have a neck that's frequently mistaken for a tree trunk.
That said, if you don't mind the extra heft it's quite possible to ride, walk, swim, or whatever with the cams attached to your head, as we managed to do for a few separate videos. It's at this point where the reality of the situation begins to interfere with the experience: what you're working with is two separate video cameras that, other than a plastic clamp, are completely disconnected. It's entirely possible to point the remote at the pair, hit the record button, and have only one start. With the very wimpy beeps that these emit when they start recording it's difficult to hear whether either started filming, and since they both make the same pitch it's impossible to tell if they're both capturing footage without looking at them -- hard to do when they're on top of your head.
Even if they do both pick up the remote signal at the same time there will be some slight delay between them, which you'll have to attempt to sync up again using the software. If the two sets of footage are off by a few frames the 3D effect is ruined, and getting everything sorted is a pain. We'd have loved to see some sort of simple connector built into the 3D mount that paired the two in some way, ensuring that they start and stop at exactly the same time and that the resulting file names are the same. Without that joining them can be a painful, manual affair.
While the provided software is easy enough to use, it's impossible to stitch multiple files together within it, and trying to merge them together somewhere else and then load them in here doesn't work because, again, each segment needs to be perfectly synchronized, meaning you need to edit both left and right simultaneously. So, if you want to take a bunch of short clips and throw them together, you have your work cut out for you. Sadly longer clips don't work well either, because the output from the software is so huge (approximately 1GB per minute of footage) that YouTube will choke on anything longer than about 30 seconds. You'll need to run it through something else to edit and re-encode before uploading, which is a less than ideal workflow
Why worry about YouTube? Because that's the best way to share a video in 3D online at the moment. Upload a clip in a split format like you see below, then add the tag "yt3d:enable=true" to it, and hey presto you'll get a bunch of options on how to display it, including red/blue, interlaced, and cross-eyed. You will have to go to the site to see all the options and get the best view, so go ahead, click on one and go check it out. We don't mind. Just come on back when you're through, and try not to cross your eyes too far.
Again the resolution is only VGA for each camera, and the video quality is not particularly good. As is usual for this type of camera a lot of light is required, and when it's there you'll get a reasonably bright, contrasty image. But, details are sparse and there's an awful lot of noise (made worse by YouTube, of course). Audio quality is muffled thanks to the waterproof case, but at least there isn't much wind noise. There is, however, something that rattles when you move the cams, which produces the annoying noises you can hear in the last video.
Interestingly, there's a continuous shoot mode that these cams can be put in, where they'll snap a photo every second until the battery dies or the memory card fills up. Put in a big memory card and that can be a lot of pictures. This is a feature we haven't seen on a helmet cam before, and it's an interesting one. We used it to spy on our Roomba to create the video above, but paired with an Eye-Fi it could make for an easy to mount real-time security camera. Or, stuck on your dash or helmet it could provide enough evidence to ensure you win any legal dramas resulting from a traffic incident. That is, of course, assuming you were not at fault.
Get your footage synced up perfectly, get everything aligned, get it written to a file, and watch it through a set of glasses and the effect is compelling. Surely by now you've experienced watching something in three dimensions, but watching yourself in 3D is enough of a novelty to make this an interesting experience. Is it worth the hassle? In most cases, no. Solo, each Tachyon XC makes for a fine little helmet cam that'll withstand quite a beating (and dunking), and while the video quality couldn't be called great it's not terrible considering you could skydive into the ocean and swim for most of the day without this thing giving up.
When it comes to paying more than twice as much for a pair of them, though, that's a harder sell. We can think of a few applications where we'd love to have this along -- a nice snorkeling trip in crystal-clear water, or maybe mounted on a dash for an auto race -- but it's a little too bulky (and silly looking) to want to strap on your head too often, and massaging the footage at the end into something watchable is a chore. If only the whole package were a little better integrated this bug-eyed accessory might be worth the hassle.