The video playing on the monitor has the feel of a first-person shooter game. The scene shows the view of the camera’s wearer as he and a handful of others in combat gear sit in the cabin of a helicopter flying low over the rooftops of a third world urban slum. Coming to a hover above a walled courtyard, operators kick the end of a thick rope out of the cabin door before each grabs hold and descends one after the other to the ground. On deck, all shoulder their weapons and move into a linear formation as they approach the nearest structure. At a door, the second man in the stack steps forward to slap a breaching charge on its frame and the group stages against the outer wall. An explosion rocks the camera and the men charge past the threshold to make entry. Here the view changes to show only the barrel of an M4 as its flash suppressor works to dim the flames of exiting rounds before they travel across the room and slam two at a time into the bodies of armed men. The camera stays with the weapon as it moves through other rooms and repeats the firing process until the shooter and his team yell, “Clear!”
Such was reportedly the view of the President of the United States and his National Security Council as they watched a joint U.S. Special Operations unit kill Osama bin Laden in his Jalalabad hideout. Video from the raid was said to have been streamed in near-real time from wearable cameras that are similar in function to the Contour+ and mounted in locations like the ACH-ARC rail of an OPS-CORE ballistic helmet and the Picatinny rail of an M4 handguard.
Contour cameras are rugged HD video cameras that were first developed to document extreme sports, but because of their image quality, compact size and available mounting options have become increasingly popular for law enforcement and military applications. Soldiers and police are now employing the technology to deliver unprecedented first-person footage of enemy engagements and law enforcement actions that document conditions on the battlefield for military commanders and present solid evidence in courtrooms.
Using simple controls, soldiers only need to mount the camera to their helmet, ear protection or ballistic plate carrier with the lens facing out then press a single button to start or stop recording.
Contour was started by two University of Washington students in 2003. Avid skiers, they were searching for a way to record their best mountain descents. Unlike other video cameras available at the time their Twenty20 Helmet Camera was unfazed by the frozen environment or the necessary hands-free descent through a slalom of trees, rocks, and snow. Building on this initial design, the two developed the ContourHD, the world’s first HD and 1080p hands-free video camera with an 8-hour video capacity, wide-angle lens, and software to share the video. A short time later they introduced the ContourGPS, which incorporated real-time GPS data while shooting HD.
Their latest offering, the Contour+, combines the features of earlier models while delivering several improvements. With the largest lens of any POV camera, the Contour+ has a 2.8-inch aperture and a 170-degree wide-angle lens that can rotate 270 degrees to allow mounting in an infinite number of ways and integrate peripherals and backdrops that would get cropped with a narrower focus. Bluetooth functionality enables users to setup their mobile devices as viewfinders for the camera and an HDMI port facilitates live streaming to a monitor or TV, eliminating lag time of downloads and transfers. For audio, an external 2.5mm microphone jack is installed to give sound options previously unavailable. GPS remains an internal feature and tracks not only location, but also speed and elevation, at a rate of four fixes per second. All the information and video obtained by the Contour+ is stored on a removable 32-gigabyte micro SD card that’s easy to swap when filled to capacity. For those wanting the perfect still image the camera also provides a 5 megapixel still mode. Protected by a water-resistant aluminum shell, the camera is made to take a beating in extreme environments. For full submersion, the Contour+ can be fitted with a waterproof case to keep it dry up to 180 feet.
Soldiers attached to many different combat units already wear cameras during missions to document their actions and provide material for later analysis, with Contour and Hero models delivering the bulk of the imagery. Using simple controls, soldiers only need to mount the camera to their helmet, ear protection, or ballistic plate carrier, then press a single button to start or stop recording. Through these cameras, combat—with all of its chaos, sound, and drama—is shown in the first person from the soldier’s point of view. The phenomenon is well illustrated by a video filmed in December 2010 by a soldier with the 87th Infantry, whose unit was ambushed during a foot patrol in the village of Haruti in the northern Afghan province of Kunduz.
For six hours his camera captured the firefight with its running gun battles through fields and walled compounds. The video shows the infantry squad as the men charge into the ambush firing their M4s and 40mm grenades, then follows as they flank the enemy before breaking contact and returning to their base. Later provided to media, the footage went viral as viewers were exposed to war from a perspective they had rarely, if ever, witnessed. Arguably more important than its public applications was its use by the involved unit who in their final days in theater edited the footage to brief the unit replacing them on insurgent battle tactics and effective methods for defeating them. Applications persist in the military beyond the unit level and combat commanders expect to soon be able to use the cameras to see the location of their troops on a map as a mission proceeds and, with the click of a button, see what any individual soldier is seeing in real time. The video will also be recorded locally and uploaded to a cloud server when bandwidth permits for later review. Combat units deployed to both Iraq and Afghanistan have been using cameras similar in function for several years on a test basis and given their success now planning to expand and standardize camera wear.
Police have long included cameras on the dashboards of cruisers to record events during traffic stops or other incidents, but are increasingly taking cameras with them through the door as they serve arrest and search warrants. City officials say the cameras help improve public trust because people know an officer’s actions are being recorded, not just for community relations, but for gathering evidence and protecting officers against claims of misconduct. Some departments are even replacing their dashboard-mounted cameras with more versatile and less expensive wearable or body cameras that are compact enough to fit into shirt pockets. The larger helmet cameras like the Contour+ are used mainly by tactical teams for mounting them to their helmets and weapons when engaged in high-risk operations.
Wearable cameras have vast applications for military and police. Adopted almost immediately after they were available from manufacturers, the ever-improving technology only becomes more desirable as features are added and basic functions are expanded. Expect to see the cameras deployed even more widely moving forward and be ready for a front row seat to the action and drama of combat and policing.
The video playing on the monitor has the feel of a first-person shooter game. The…
by John Fasano / Jan 4, 2013