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Not the most titillating way to take video of oneself, but...
March 19, 2009 8:25 AM   Subscribe

Cheap digital video? Help me do time-motion studies on myself.

I build furniture in a one-man studio shop. I suck at estimating how long it will take to build a piece. Every piece I build is unique, and usually made up as I go along; I do a little of process X, then jump to process Y, then work on unrelated maintenance while waiting for glue to dry, etc. It would be very helpful to know how much time I've actually spent on various phases of work, but I've never been successful at switching timers on and off while I'm working; doing so just breaks my rhythm and I stall out.

So it occurs to me that maybe a I could mount a cheap video camera in the shop and run a cable to my PC in the house (perhaps 50 feet away). I (hopefully) could make timestamped recordings of myself working, and then take notes while fast-forwarding through them later.

The shop is small; the camera wouldn't need to move at all. Also, I see this as an occasional, short-term practice; I don't need to build this system to work perfectly, or to work forever. Cheap is important. Low-res and choppy is fine.

I have zero experience with digital video recording. What equipment and software would be necessary? How much drive space would I need to store a day's work? A week's? How plausible is this? Any insight would be appreciated.
posted by jon1270 to Computers & Internet (11 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Many of the new Canon elphs have a time lapse function built right in. It takes pictures at one or two second intervals rather than at 30fps. As these are at 640x480 resolution they will take up very little room even when recording hours worth of activity.
posted by caddis at 8:32 AM on March 19, 2009

Thanks, Caddis. I should clarify that I'm picturing something more like a webcam that could be mounted up near the ceiling and controlled from my PC. Of course, I have no webcam experience either so I could be totally wrong about how they work.
posted by jon1270 at 8:38 AM on March 19, 2009

I do digital video for a living and make furniture for fun. Some kind of a webcam thing would work, but I can tall you that it will be way more effort than it's worth. Even if you were already comfortable with the video technology and it would be trivial for you to set something up (which sounds like it's not the case), it'll be a pain to sift through the video/stills later on to figure out what you're doing at any given time.

The best solution really is a stopwatch. Get a big one with a huge start/stop button and mount it somewhere right in the middle of the shop, so you're never more than a step or two away from it. Develop the habit of turning it on and off. This is a minor hassle compared to sifting through five hours of video and trying to see when you're working and when you're not.
posted by echo target at 9:01 AM on March 19, 2009

Well, rats. It's not so much a question of whether I'm working as what I'm working at, which is why a simple stopwatch falls short. It would have to be a stopwatch combined with an activity log, which I've tried and found cumbersome.

Echo, would you provide a little more detail as to what setup would entail? I'm comfortable with computers generally and have no problem with running wires. Are you saying there isn't a plug-n-play sort of solution that could pull this off?
posted by jon1270 at 9:09 AM on March 19, 2009

I was thinking stopwatch also, but several, not just one. You could buy a bunch of dollar store stopwatches and place one at each "station". Just punch each watch on when you start doing something, and punch it off when you finish. At the end of the day or week, you'll have a perfect record of how much time you've spent at each task.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 9:12 AM on March 19, 2009

I actually don't work much with webcams, but setup would be relatively simple if you're comfortable with computer tasks in general. Basically you'd install some software, plug the thing in, tell it where to record files & what quality, and then press record. The software should come with the cam. So yeah, it would be mostly plug-and-play.

Cabling might be more tricky if you need to carry it some distance. Basic webcams run on USB, which is great, but you can't run it more than 15-20 feet without some kind of repeater on it. You might have to get a cam that can run on an ethernet cable, which I think will cost a bit more.
posted by echo target at 9:32 AM on March 19, 2009

Would something like this work? Looks like it even has a motion detector trigger. Plus, we have wireless...
posted by jon1270 at 10:02 AM on March 19, 2009

Imagesalsa is a reasonably-priced software that stores still pictures from a webcam at whatever interval you choose, and will do timestamping. Then Moviesalsa can create a movie from the stills at whatever frame rate you want.

For getting the webcam 50 feet - if the path from the computer to the workshop is weather-protected you could use a series of USB active extenders, otherwise you would need to go usb over cat5, or just put the computer in the workshop.

Storage space all depends on the resolution you use and the frame rate. You might consider taking one image every (5 minutes? 10 minutes?) and review the stills instead of bothering to make a video. On the other hand, storage space is cheap these days. I recorded an image every minute during daylight hours, and I remember in the spring (around 13-hour days?) one month of stills at 640x480 resolution was around 4 gigs.
posted by one at 10:32 AM on March 19, 2009

Also, I see that no-name USB web cams are practically free, and USB repeater cables are pretty cheap too. (I think I can hear you cringing). Most of them cite a "maximum" frame rate of 30 FPS. Is it typically possible to reduce that rate, or is it fixed?
posted by jon1270 at 10:32 AM on March 19, 2009

Imagesalsa looks promising. But, then, I am such a newbie that I might be attracted by anything shiny.

So, a refurbished Logitech web cab can be had for $12. Active USB extensions are $9 each (I'd need 3), and the ImageSalsa software is $20. This is starting to smell doable.

Additional thoughts are welcome. Thanks!
posted by jon1270 at 11:10 AM on March 19, 2009

Take a look at Motion (Linux only, I think) - I know it does timestamped webcam captures.
posted by primer_dimer at 4:05 AM on March 20, 2009

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