The Outside Blog

Dispatches : Cameras

This Camera Will Make Cycling Cool Again

Television footage of this year’s Tour de France was a reminder of just how poor a spectator sport cycling can be.

Sure, the race lacked drama because two major protagonists, Alberto Contador and Chris Froome, crashed out early. But even on a good year, I bet most viewers cue up the DVR and skip ahead to the last 10 or 15 minutes—or, best-case scenario, the final climb.

This year, however, saw a development that could finally add some intrigue: on-bike cameras. For the first time in history, Tour de France organizer ASO permitted video cameras to be mounted onto riders’ bicycles. 

The move followed the very first use of video cameras in the pro peloton earlier this spring. Footage from the Tour de Suisse in June, especially a video of the sprint finish on Stage 5, captured the hectic nature of the final few kilometers of a professional race. Likewise, a video shot by Giant-Shimano sprinter John Degenkolb on the first stage of the Tour of California gave a sense of what it takes to win at this level—well, almost win as Degenkolb took a razor thin second place on the stage to sprinter Mark Cavendish.

At the Tour, Shimano outfitted eight of its sponsored teams, including BMC, Giant-Shimano, Orica-GreenEdge, and Sky, with the company’s new Shimano CM-1000 camera. The resulting footage appeared on both the team’s pages as well as on the official Tour de France website.

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Several Garmin-Sharp riders were also equipped with its sponsor’s new VIRB Action Camera, which resulted in a series of first-person videos on the team website. The capture from Stage 7 is especially interesting as it overlays rider metrics like speed, heart rate, distance, and power collected by the VIRB via ANT+.

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The most unconventional first-person footage came from Europecar’s Kevin Reza. After a Lotto-Bellisol racer collided with a fan on the side of the road, Reza scooped up the spectator’s helmet cam, which had tumbled into the road, and filmed several minutes of the race before passing it to his team car.

The use of cameras in the peloton is partly a reflection of just how advanced the technology has become. At 180g, the Garmin VIRB isn’t smallest camera out there, but it captures 1080p HD video as well as GPS data and cycle-specific data such as heart rate and power. The Shimano CM-1000 captures similar high-quality footage and data and weighs just 86 grams. Given these units’ diminutive size, they can be mounted on the bars or below the saddle without much effect or impediment to a racer.

However the video these cameras capture provides arguably the most interesting way to watch pro cycling. They convey the fury and treacherousness of bike racing in a way that traditional footage shot from a motorcycle or helicopter cannot.

You see riders touching and bumping one another, get a feeling for just how tight and fast they are racing, and, thanks to the sound of yelling, heaving breathing, and camera shake while sprinting, register how difficult it must be. The recap from Stage 1 of the Tour conveys just how tough it was to stay upright in the final few kilometers of the race.

As good as the footage is, however, what’s now missing is the ability to stream live during a race. Watching firsthand footage after the fact is great, but it would be even better if television could cut back and forth between top view from a helicopter, front view from a motorcycle, and footage captured within the peloton while it happens.

“There are challenges, circling primarily around weight and battery life, that have to be resolved,” before live streaming is a reality, says Dustin Brady, marketing manager at Shimano America.

He explains that while the cameras are tiny now, it will take some time before batteries will be both small enough and have a long enough life to last the duration of an entire stage. The addition of a radio transmitter will also add weight and bulk. “We are talking about professional cyclist needing to climb the Col du Galibier or Col du Tourmalet or ride for five hours in pouring rain. Additional weight matters.”

That might sound discouraging, but the fact is the technology is only in its infancy: Both the VIRB and the CM-1000 were launched this year. Meanwhile, the decision to allow on-bike video at the Tour was even more recent. “We only found out after the Tour had started that the team could use action cameras,” says Amy Johnson, the media relations associate at Garmin, “So I think it was fairly sporadic this year.”

In a sport that tends to be resistant to change, the fact that these cameras have been adopted as quickly as they have is heartening. Hopefully governing bodies will move forward with similar programs, and manufacturers will fast track development. If not, television coverage of pro cycling may live—and perhaps die—by the DVR.

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Your Travel Photos Are Helping Rhino Poachers

Seeing a rhino in the wild is one of Africa’s quintessential safari experiences and a lump-in-your-throat moment for those lucky enough to realize the dream. This is what you came to the continent for, right? 

Maybe you’ll zoom in with your SLR camera and snap some great shots that you’ll edit later and share online with friends. Or perhaps you’ll take quick pics on your cell phone and post on Facebook or Instagram within minutes.

Either way, what you might not realize is that the second you share that photo online, you could be helping a rhino poacher find his next victim.

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Finding Rhinos

The Hospitality Association of Namibia recently posted a photo on its Facebook page of a sign hanging in a safari vehicle that reads: "Please be careful when sharing photos on social media. They can lead poachers to our rhino. Turn off the geotag function and do not disclose where the photo was taken."

Geotagging is the process of automatically including geographic information in cell phone pictures. When you share your photos with others, the information is embedded within the photograph, and anyone with access to the Internet can extract that data from your picture.

Plug the longitude and latitude into Google Maps, for example, and you could discover the exact spot where the photo was shot, give or take a few feet. Combine that with the fact that rhinos are very sedentary and often hang out in the same general area for days at a stretch, and you have a potentially serious situation.

"If you’ve got a fresh GPS coordinate for a rhino—or you know where it’s going to water every night—it’s very easy to quickly find and poach it," explains Chris Weaver, director of the Namibia program for World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

Rhino poaching has dominated the news recently, as the number of endangered animals killed over the past few years has risen astronomically—all in an effort to sell the horns of the prehistoric mammals. Some believers of traditional Asian medicine think pulverized rhino horn will cure strokes, convulsions and fevers, among other ailments.

Though there is no scientific proof of such medicinal value, rhino horn is nonetheless highly prized—so much so that a single rhino horn can fetch $250,000 on the black market.

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Faux Tourists

As more and more of the endangered rhinos are killed, conservationists and government officials in some parts of Africa have become extremely protective. In fact, they try not to discuss the animals publicly anymore.

"While Namibia would love to boast about its success with relocation of protected species into private parks and the growth of its rhino population and rhino tracking activities, unfortunately such positive news may draw poachers to our area," said Gitta Paetzold, CEO of the Hospitality Association of Namibia. To combat this, several organizations have started educating travelers about how poachers can pluck GPS coordinates off photos that tourists post on social media sites.

Poachers can also examine your photos and identify markers in the background, such as a particular grove of trees or a mountain peak. And some illegal hunters even pose as tourists, going on guided expeditions on game farms or in national parks. The first time this happened, in South Africa’s Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Park, two men killed a pair of white rhinos. The men were later arrested. It’s even happened in India, where poachers killed a pair of one-horned rhinos in Kaziranga National Park.

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Guides, of course, lead their visitors right to where the rhinos are, and the faux tourists may then snap photos without raising any suspicions. Would-be poachers or informants can then send a photo with a location tag to anyone or return to the spot later to seek out the rhino.

Weaver was recently exploring the Namibian desert with some guests when he came across a group of tourists who took an unusual interest in two white rhinos. They snapped more than the typical number of photos of the animals with their cell phones and spent more time with them than Weaver has observed during his 20 years working in Namibia.

"I’m thinking, how would a person know that they’re not just forwarding these photos on to China or Vietnam and saying ‘How much will you pay for information on this rhino?’" Weaver said. "Pass that on, and five minutes later, you’ll have an answer back: ‘I’ll give you X amount for that set of horns."

It’s not a far-fetched proposition. In South Africa, for example, officials have become more vigilant about rhino tourism, documenting the names and visits of tourists. Weaver said he’s even heard of some spots where cell phones are forbidden on safari vehicles.

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How You Can Help

Although visitor photos may inadvertently help poachers on occasion, there is a silver lining: travelers can actually be a huge aid to rhino conservation efforts, especially in Namibia where tour operators work with community members who value wildlife and work tirelessly to protect it.

"You as a tourist are actually making a difference," WWF’s Weaver says, explaining that a portion of tour payments go toward community conservation efforts. "Your tourist dollars create long-term incentives for people to set aside habitat for wildlife and live with wildlife."

To ensure you’re not aiding poachers with your travel photos:

  • Disable the geotag function in the settings section of any smartphone you use to take photos.
  • Strip off the location data on photos previously shot.
  • Be mindful of privacy settings on social media sites. if posting photos of rhinos, only share them with trusted contacts.
  • Pay attention to fellow tourists. If you see someone acting out of the ordinary or hear a few too many questions about where rhinos are and how long they’ll stay there, alert national park staff or your guide. That person could be a poacher informant.
  • Be wary of sharing too much information with overly interested people, such as taxi drivers or hotel staff. If a line of questioning gets too detailed about the location of an animal you saw that day, answer vaguely.

Learn more about what WWF is doing to stop rhino poaching.

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6 Beach-Ready Essentials

Instead of that old-school boombox, consider throwing a powerful water-resistant speaker or high-tech action camera in your beach bag this summer. Check out these six sand- and sun-resistant products guaranteed to make your hot summer nights even more fun:

Canon PowerShot D30 ($330)

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Go ahead and dive up to 82 feet below the surface with this 12.1-megapixel pocket camera. The tough outer shell can withstand drops on the dock up to 6.5 feet. The killer feature? Perfect for beach-goers, the screen uses a new LCD screen that’s viewable even in direct sunlight.

Outdoor Tech Big Turtle Shell ($230)

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Don’t dip your toes in the water unless you have the tunes to play in the background. This durable Bluetooth speaker is water- and splash-resistant (not waterproof), plays music at a loud 110 decibels, and connects to your phone or tablet from up to 30 feet away.

Quiksilver Rashguard ($40)

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This smart short-sleeve shirt has a hidden feature. Although it looks like every other T-shirt you’d wear to the beach, it uses a new Rashguard tech with a UPF 50+ rating for sunblock. The entire line includes long-sleeve shirts, swimming trunks, and surf shirts.

Miir Growler ($59)

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Not every water bottle is beach-ready. Not so the Miir Growler, which uses a unique clamp system that keeps sand and other residue from building up at the lip. The double-insulated shell keeps cold drinks cold for about 24 hours and hot drinks hot for 12 hours.

Sprint Kyocera Hydro Vibe (Free with contract)

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A few years ago, companies started offering so-called “waterproof” phones. The Kyocera Hydro Vibe actually lives up to the claim—it can be submerged down to 3.28 feet for 30 minutes. The 4.5-inch screen is also crack-resistant and the phone wards off dust and sand.

Plantronics BackBeat FIT ($130)

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This Bluetooth headset, which is splash-resistant and durable, comes with a neoprene armband to hold your smartphone on your arm while you lay out at the beach. The headset lets you control music and answer calls with a quick finger press.

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How High Can GoPro Go?

By this point, GoPro cameras have been used to film just about every activity on the planet, from BASE jumps to baby’s first steps to surgical operations. Amateurs affix to them to dogs and kites, professionals use them to shoot Discovery Channel shows and feature films. But the company found itself in unfamiliar territory earlier this week: the stock market.

This past Thursday, GoPro’s initial public offering brought the company into the world of public trading. It’s the first consumer electronics company to go public since headphone maker Skull Candy debuted in 2011, and early signs look promising for GoPro. Its shares rose 31 percent by the time the floor closed Thursday, giving it a market value of 3.9 billion, nearly equal to that of Domino's Pizza Inc., according to the Wall Street Journal

By just about every measure, the company is on fire right now: revenue increased last year by 87 percent to nearly $1 billion, it sold 3.8 million cameras last year, and GoPro customers uploaded nearly three years worth of video in 2013 alone. But founder and CEO Nick Woodman’s brainchild has run into some recent debt, and revenue dropped 7 percent in early 2014. A source with knowledge of the situation said that the IPO was not a result of that debt, but that it’s simply a natural progression of GoPro’s evolution.

{%{"quote":"For many of us, a GoPro is not unlike a fancy new juicer. We buy one because it’s new and cool. We’re excited to use it at first, but then we realize that it’s easier to just buy juice. Or watch someone else’s awesome video."}%}

As hot as GoPro is right now, its IPO comes at a pivotal time for the camera maker. One of the big questions on the table, which the company acknowledged in its IPO filings, is that it currently makes nearly of all of its money selling cameras (that cost upwards of $400). This is a serious issue.

For many of us, a GoPro is not unlike a fancy new juicer. We buy one because it’s new and cool. We’re excited to use it at first, but then we realize that it’s easier to just buy juice. Or watch someone else’s awesome video. That’s because creating a fun little video that your buddies might want to actually watch is not easy: you need to do something cool, film it from multiple angles, and then edit it creatively. There’s lots of boring POV footage on people’s hard drives; there are lots of GoPros sitting in people’s gear bins, no longer being strapped to chests or mounted atop helmets on a regular basis.

One big example stands out as a cautionary tale. Remember Flip Video cameras? If so, you probably haven’t seen the company around lately. Cisco Systems bought Pure Digital, maker of the Flip cam, for $600 million worth of stocks in 2009, and yet the ascendance of the smartphone camera rendered the product obsolete. Cisco shut the Flip operation down in 2011.

Despite what some financial analysts might be predicting, GoPro is a long way from becoming obsolete. While it’s true that every few months a new competitor enters the action-cam scene, often selling a similar product for less money, no one has yet to make a comparable—let alone better—camera. We know this because we’ve tested nearly all of the rival cameras. New technologies, like wearable cameras that capture 360-degrees of footage, will eventually erode some of GoPro’s market share, as will smartphones, whose video capabilities are only getting better, but not any time soon.

GoPro is acutely aware of the challenges it faces. It just recently debuted new software that makes it easier than ever to edit your own movie. Newer, fancier, smaller, more user-friendly cameras are in the works. And they’re rapidly trying to transform themselves from a camera company into a media empire, à la Red Bull. Woodman told Bloomberg on Thursday that GoPro’s “focus is to help customers capture, manage, share quality content.” The product he’s trying to sell is not just the technology itself, but the experience of reliving last week’s bungee jump through video. 

{%{"quote":"GoPro is a long way from becoming obsolete. While it’s true that every few months a new competitor enters the action-cam scene, often selling a similar product for less money, no one has yet to make a comparable—let alone better—camera. We know this because we’ve tested nearly all of the rivals."}%}

Not everyone bungee jumps, though. And while they’ve done an exceptional job at marketing themselves at active people doing rad things, they need to do a much better job marketing its camera to the rest of us. This will require new and different branding and marketing campaigns.

The biggest question, however, is whether or not they can figure out how to make money as a media company. GoPro recently struck a deal with Microsoft to be a channel on the new Xbox, and has begun to monetize its content on its YouTube and Virgin America channels, but these are relatively small drops in the bucket. To make significant amounts of money, GoPro will need to negotiate deals with bigger and bigger content distributers as well as forge new licensing partnerships.

And GoPro will need to do so pretty quickly. The reason Red Bull has been able to sign up hundreds of athletes and musicians, sponsor major events and stunts, and become a massive media and marketing empire is that many people drink several cans of their stuff every day. GoPro doesn’t have that luxury. As its camera sales inevitably decrease, it needs to figure out how to distribute and make money off its own content, be it user-generated or of its own creation.

“Over time, if you think of all the resources that Apple or Google can bring to bear, not this year but next year, GoPro could have some problems,” said Paul Meeks, a tech industry financial analyst with Saturna Capital. “It’s the same kind of scenario for GoPro. They have to become a bigger ecosystem than the product." 

Which is exactly what it’s trying to do. The IPO is getting all the mainstream media attention, but behind the scenes GoPro is reportedly signing up musicians, producers, and content creators of every stripe. It also recently beefed up its roster of athletes. In short, it’s ramping up big time. So while you may not use your GoPro as often as you thought you might, don’t write the company off yet. 

If it can pull it off, it will be a clever trick.

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