Limited but Web-friendly-- Sharp Viewcam

by Alan Zisman (c) 2000. First published in Toronto Computes, February 2000

Sharp VN-EZ1 Internet Viewcam
About $1300
Sharp Electronics of Canada

There?s the point about the dancing dog?the issue isn?t really that it?s not a very good dancer, that it dances at all is praiseworthy.

That;s what comes to mind when I think of Sharp Electronics? new Internet Viewcam, otherwise known as the VN-EZ1 MPEG-4 Digital Recorder.

In an era of megapixel digital cameras, its still photos are stuck at a 640x480. That doesn?t sound very impressive, especially given the unit?s $1300 pricetag?which would buy a standard digital camera with much better sounding specs.

But it really wasn?t designed to be just another in the pack of digital cameras. Instead, as the name suggests, the Internet Viewcam was designed to be a handy source of stills, audio, and video for the Web. And if you?re looking to post various media on the Web,  much more important than the screen size is file size?how much bandwidth will it take to get that file down to the end-user.

And here?s where the Viewcam does well?by being one of the first hardware devices built around the MPEG-4 video compression standard, it can create video clips that are small enough to be streamed over the Internet, or added as e-mail attachments?not only is it usable for those with Web pages, but the rest of us can use it send Grandma videos of our one-year old?s first steps. Sharp notes that a 2 meg MPEG-4 clip could contain as much as four minutes of video, compared to about 10 seconds of footage in a similarly-sized, old-standard MPEG-1 file.

It?s a pretty neat little gadget, as well?small and light enough to fit into a shirt pocket, its lens swivels right around, so you can even take pictures of yourself! Files are saved onto standard SmartMedia cards?a 4 meg card is included, with SmartMedia available in sizes up to 32 meg, which allow for up to an hour of saved video (including audio).

Sharp includes a floppy disk adaptor, so it?s quick and easy to transfer still pictures, audio, and video clips to a computer, by popping the SmartMedia card into the adaptor, and then reading it on your computer.

Of course, something has to be given up for all this handiness. In this case, it?s picture quality. Not only are the still photos limited to 640x480 size (though who would want any larger photos for on-screen, particularly Internet display?), but the videos are back to the 160-120 pixel postage-stamped sized frames of days past. And even at that small size, don?t expect 30 frame per second full motion video. Or anything close. Think frame rates of 5-15 fps, making for jerky movement at best. (You can shoot in larger 320x240 quarter-screen sized, but frame rate drops to a very jerky 2-5 fps).

And in a perhaps controversial move, Sharp is limiting file support to Microsoft?s ASF?Advanced Streaming Format. No Quicktime support, so no Mac support. (Of course, the floppy disk adaptor wouldn?t work well on your new generation floppy-less Macs, as well). Clips can be viewed using recent versions of Microsoft?s Media Player.

PixLab Media Browsing software is included, including basic video-editing and compression tools. The editing tool is pretty basic?you can cut and paste, and that?s about it. The on-camera controls, however, are nicely designed and easy to use?a series of menus in the 1.8? LCD viewfinder make it easy to choose between options for recording and playback.

Like with our dancing dog, the Internet Viewcam?s performance is strictly limited?you can easily get better quality still photos, audio, or video. More powerful video editing software, and a choice of file formats would be a real plus. But maybe that doesn?t matter?the ability to create Web-friendly streaming video at all in such a small package is a wonder?and for the right user, that?s what matters the most.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan