It is impossible to precisely determine who, where and when created the first action camera.
Even though early attempts to capture footage from first-person view with a camera attached to a helmet were made back in 1960s, those were all DIY attempts by innovators in various industries for single project needs.
First commercially available action camera was introduced by Woodman Labs (which later became GoPro) in 2004 and costed 20$. The camera GoPro made a decade ago came a long way from 20$ analog in a waterproof case to a device people in film industry use today.
Action cameras we use now improved significantly over the last few years. But long before POV 4K, WiFi, wide field of view, mobile apps and other fancy bells and whistles, creatives willing to push their limits for the sake of storytelling attempted to capture a footage with a camera strapped to their head in various ways.
For easier understanding , I will divide action camera evolution into three parts.
- Early action cameras 1960-1990
- 2002-2012 GoPro Era
- Post GoPro Era
The reason for categorization like this is simple. Influence of a GoPro has on marketing and commercialization of helmet cameras can not be surpassed. Its their business model that made action cameras available to an average Billy down the street.
Prior to that, athletes, actors and astronauts all had something that can be considered as an point of view camera, therefore their influence can not be ignored either.
Here are some facts :
- People tried to find solution for a camera that can capture videos from first person view, decades before GoPro founder did.
- GoPro did not make a first action camera, but had incredible influence on its development.
- Today we have incredible amount of brands all trying to stand out from the crowd, innovating and making action cameras grow like never before.
Early action cameras
Long before the first camera was created, video makers were using different techniques to capture the viewers attention and spark their imagination. In such process, they tried to be come up with different, funky and unusual ways to take their movies and photographs to a whole new level.
It is very hard to precisely determine who was the first to adopt the “action camera concept” but here is the list of people who tried to stand out from the crowd and produced different kind of videos – action videos.
Bob Sinclair was a skydiver (a parachuting God as colleagues called him) and one of crew members in charge of recording for the Ripcord show aired from 1961-1963. Ripcord was on air for two seasons (76 episodes) featuring extreme sky jumping that according to the show has been filmed live.
At that time Mr Bob Sinclair, innovative genius as he was, tried to find a way to make videos more realistic and extreme. He wanted to spark the emotion of people watching the show. They had to feel like skydivers themselves from watching the videos.
In order to do that, Bob wanted a video from a first person perspective. He thought that standard recording from a hand was too shaky and distracting. Therefore he came to a conclusion that mounting a camera on a helmet would not only be more convenient for a skydiver, but also stabilize the video much better, since head was the most stable part during jumps.
He began mounting his gyro-stabilized camera to a football helmet at first. He kept finding out new solutions and used better mounts and fiberglass helmet. He kept pushing his idea in order to tell a different kind of story.
Based upon my research, I can say that Bob Sinclair was certainly one of the first, if not the first man to record action videos with his own setup of mounting a camera to a fiberglass helmet.
Update 11/5/2015 (Thanks Mollydog)
Somewhere in 1963, a rumor says that one of the NASA astronauts, who was also keen on photography, bought a Hasselblad 500c camera in a photo shop in Houston/Austin (Texas).
Upon his return to NASA, engineers were so impressed with the camera that they started modifying it. Hasselblad joined the development team and together they worked on a camera that can be easy to use and survive on the moon.The main challenge was to make it easy for astronauts with gigantic gloves and suits on, to replace a film.
One of the members from DashCam forum, Mollydog, pointed out some quite interesting facts.
Space cameras were striped down to just the necessities, no viewfinder, no wind on handle and a few other features, and also a special motorized body that could be used with gloves on, as before this date there were no motorized Hasselblads.
Hasselblads had two types of film backs, a 120 back shooting 12 exposures and a 220 back shooting 24 exposures before the film needed replacing or the back changing, me using Hasselblads for over 20 years I can tell you, with any kind of gloves on you are not going to be able to wind on the film and take it off its spool and re load the film back.
NASA and Hasselblad came up with 2 larger film backs, one was for 100 exposures and the other was a 200 medium format exposure back, those long ones that can be seen on the back of the cameras, for its day that was like getting a smart phone that its battery would last a full month of use on one charge.
What is even more interesting is that most of these cameras never came back to the Earth, due to their weight. That is why one that appeared on eBay a while ago was sold for staggering 910 000$!
You can read more about this specific model on this link.
Famous Scottish F1 driver, Jackie Stewart had few experiments on his own as well. First photography depicts still-image Nikon camera Stewart wore back in 1966. It should be mentioned that he did not try this experiments during an actual race.
Even though it is not nearly as comfortable solution as some others, it definitely shows that people were interested to get dramatic and realistic footage. Sometimes sacrifices were made to get incredible videos.
There is a reason why Steve McQueen, famous American actor from the 70s had a nickname “The King of Cool”. Back in 1971 Steve wore a robust camera on set for the movie “Le Mans”. Camera was duck-taped to his helmet in order to capture first person video of him motorcycling.
In 1985, Canon introduced the Ci-10, tiny camera produced in even smaller amount with a gigantic 1000$ price-tag.
No bigger than a pack of cigarettes Ci-10 caught the attention of experts in security and surveillance niche. “Due to its size it could easily fit into investigators pocket” the NY Times reported in their 1985 article.
Ci-10 size was 102 x 53 x 27 mm (H x W x D) and weighted around 289 grams without a lens. Sensor used was 3.8 megapixels (380 000 px) 6.6 x 8.8 mm. It allowed a resolution of 300 TV lines sensitive up to 20 lux. It also had a 1.4x optical zoom.
Company called Aerial Video Systems found a way to transmit microwaves remotely and attached a camera to a helmet of Dirk Garcia. Footage was broadcasted live on ABC.
That is on 28th of June, 1986, Canon‘s Ci-10 became the first camera used to broadcast first person view footage on air.
These days its impossible to find much info on this camera. To prove its rarity, you can check Canon Museum and you will see it does not appear there. If nothing, Ci-10 was one of the most comfortable solutions at that time.
Dirk from Canon Technical support tried to remember how the camera used to operate, as they have no exact information in their archives either.
I know there was an optional video disc recorder that could be connected to the unit, making it an early predecessor of our later “Still Video Cameras” such as the RC-701 that recorded to Canon proprietary “Video Floppy Disks“.
There was also apparently a tape recorder that could be connected to it for recording video, making it the successor to the earlier cameras in our “Color Camcorder” line.
Effectively, this camera is the “missing link” that helped us expand from video to still images in electronic format.
Mark Schulze was one of the early inventors of an action camera. After doing quite a research, I realized that plenty of news articles credited Mark for his contribution on action camera development. According to many sources Shulze is considered a pioneer in this field.
Obviously Bob Sinclair and all others above mounted a camera onto their helmets way before him.
But here is what is interesting about Shulze. His videos are documented and available today. So we have an actual proof that he recorder videos with his setup.
Somewhere in 1987 Mark, who is a video maker, was working on “The Great Mountain Biking Video“.
His approach was no different then others when it comes to camera mounting. He mounted a VHS camera on top of his helmet and had a VCR with the latter in the bikers backpack connected with RCA cable.
This was quite a rigid and heavy setup, especially if you are cycling for a longer period of time, but it worked. There are few videos available online, but the one from 1988 is my favorite.
When asked why he did not patent his invention, Mark said (source) :
Our focus at that time was to produce the best and most awesome mountain bike videos of their time. And that’s what we did. We left that technical engineering stuff to people like GoPro who have these teeny cameras that you can mount to a helmet, a car hood, a surfboard, a boat deck, well, you name it.
Developed by biologist and filmmaker Greg Marshall in 1986, Crittercam was a different type of camera that captured fast movement and action. Instead of attaching it to a human, Mr Marshall had an idea to film animals in their natural inhabitant not influenced or disturbed by the presence of a human.
The main goal is to collect data of animals behavior.
Unlike all vintage cameras and solutions featured in this article, Crittercam is being developed continuously even today. Crittercam enabled scientists to study animals behavior. Actually this is more than just a camera. Besides video and audio it collects environmental data such as temperature and acceleration.
If you are interested in move videos that this smart device can capture, check Nat Geo gallery here.
1991 was a year when Helmet-Cam were introduced. Basic idea was no different than any other attempts to capture first person view video. “Lets create something different that will make viewers at home feel like they are playing football themselves.”
Lipstick-shaped camera had to be placed over the players right ear into a VSR-3 helmet made by Riddel. An antenna was placed on quarterbacks helmet (on the top to be precise) and transmitted live signal to the production truck. Battery pack and transmitter were molded into the`s shoulder pads, which made camera itself impossible to take off by a player. That is why someone always had to unplug the cables and help QB to safely remove his helmet.
Jaw-dropping price of 20000$ per unit and players complaints were one of the main reasons why this product never came alive.
- Camera size – 9/16″ diameter x 2″ long
- Antenna size – approx. 1/8″ – 3/16″ thick x 3″ x 3″
Today, there are many videos of NFL superstars wearing a GoPro on their practice, so who knows, maybe the concept is not dead after all.
GoPro Era – Everyone can be a hero.
Even though, attempts to create a helmet camera that can capture action were made few decades earlier, opinions are united that Nicholas “Nick” Woodman a founder of multi billion empire GoPro, was the first to introduce a rugged and waterproof solution sold and marketed to an average consumer.
The first prototype of a such a camera was made in 2004/2005, while the idea itself came few years earlier.
In 2002, while traveling through Indonesia and Australia coast in order to relax and get an idea for “the next big thing”, Nick, inspired and young adrenaline junkie and entrepreneur tried to capture still images while surfing with 35mm camera wrapped around his palm by a rubber band.
At that time proper waterproof cameras were something that only professional photographers could afford. Seeing the struggles surfers and others like face, Nick decided to create a camera that is waterproof and can easily be attached to a surfers body.
Initial idea was to create a wrist strap which can easily fit other cameras on top of it. Since most of the cameras he tested broke easily, Woodman had to find a camera that can be used in rigorous activities like surfing.
After two years of wondering through various trade shop seeking for a camera that can meet the requirements, he finally found a company that had something close to what he wanted. He paid them to adjust and modify the camera to fit his strap.
Woodman once said he never met manufacturer prior to outsourcing them and that entire communication was done through the email and one phone call, mostly because of language barrier. He eventually had to fly out to Shenzhen in China to finalize the deal. “We barely understood each other over the phone” Woodman said.
The first GoPro action camera- Hero 35mm 0001 was analog and completely different to a GoPro we know today. It could not even record a video. It came with 35mm Kodak film, a waterproof case and a wrist strap inside the box.
It allowed consumers to take photos up to 15 feet (cca 5 meters) underwater and weighted around 200grams (7.2 ounces).
Main advantage of a GoPro Hero 001, besides it being waterproof, was a secure wrist mount, which according to Nick “He designed so it fits his 9-year old cousin as well”. Camera operated completely mechanical and did not require batteries.
It could take 24 pictures with a W/24 exposure film that was loaded inside. In order to replace a film, you simply had to unbuckle two clips from the waterproof case, It supported any kind of 35 mm film, colored or black and white.
What is incredible that first GoPro 35mm Hero retail price was around 20$. According to an interview Woodman did with Forbes, it costed around 3$ to produce the camera itself.
2005 was crucial for GoPro. Nick and his two employees started selling cameras across the US. Very interesting video below, depicts young Woodman introducing his product live on QVC.
If everyone can wear a Hero, they can be a Hero.
In 2006 GoPro went digital and launched GoPro Hero Digital that could record VGA videos in 10 seconds sequence with no sound output. In the next few years company released Hero 2 and 3 with plenty of improvement and innovation compared to Hero Digital.
In 2012 Foxconn from Chinese invests 200 million dollars buying 8.88% stake in GoPro, making Nick Woodman a billionaire. Rest is a history.
What the future holds?
Today action camera market is booming. There are hundreds of brands competing. Competition is great for consumers. Nearly each month, a company announces a breakthrough or a new features no brand implemented before.
Few decades ago you did not have an LCD touch screen,4K, WiFi, editing software, Apps and more importantly great video and photo quality in a small package.
Chinese companies like Xiaomi or SJCAM produce affordable cameras that nearly everyone can afford. GoPro is still an industry leader, but big boys like Sony and Polaroid entered the competitive race as well. There were rumors that Apple is ready to launch their camera, but that never happened.
It is insane to even think what future holds with this many people and brands working on improving products on daily basis.
So, there you have it. If you ever wondered how action cameras looked throughout the history, I hope this article helped you a bit. As you can see technology evolved significantly over the decades, but the idea was the same : Get the most realistic, eye-catching footage and capture the attention of your audience.
It is all about telling a story. With that in mind I can say that all of us, are in a way storytellers. We tell a story through our pocket cameras no matter the age, religion, political beliefs, and a budget.
All of the early inventors of helmet/action/pov cameras adopted the concept in order to tell a story. Do not forget that video making is not about expensive gear and equipment. Its about the message you want to send.
Please understand that this is not a final list. It was based on my research and contacts made with action camera communities and manufacturers.
If you are aware of some other cameras that can fall into this category, please let me know, I would really like to add more info regarding action camera development and evolution.
Lastly, I would like to thank : Dan (JooVuu), MollyDog, Cronnin, Dirk (Canon), Ryan and Dashmellow for their contribution in my research.
Here are few more great links which I used during my research :
- “Ripcord!” by Parachutistonline.com
- “GoPro, Circa the 1960s” by Kottke.org
- “Head Gear – The Evolution of the Helmet Cam” by videoandfilmmaker.com
- “Helmet-Cam History” by worldleagueofamericanfootball.com
- “Action cameras: an extreme point of view” by Engadget.com
- “Will tape be the film of the future?” by NY Times
- “Crittercam” by National Geographic
Altan CAN says
Excellent , i was reading with pleasure. Great. Ty Pavle for this article.
Thanks a bunch Altan, glad you liked the article 🙂
Spelling mistake on Huston/Austin.
Should be Houston/Austin.
Hey Sunny, thanks for pointing that out, corrected the mistake and updated the article. Thanks once again.
Great article, cool vintage photos. Can you imagine what kind of action cameras there will be in the future when today’s cameras are considered vintage !
Thanks Phil, I am curious to see what sort of innovations are on its way.