Sometimes it's good to know exactly where you stand.
Video Mapping System 200 from Red Hen Systems Inc. plots your location on a still picture or video using readings from Global Positioning System satellites.
The system is in a little black box the size of a cigarette pack. It weighs about a pound and has a long, flexible antenna that can wrap around you or a dashboard. At the end of the antenna, a sensor scans the sky for GPS signals.
Uses are specialized but numerous: You might shoot video of each block of a city, then post a map on the Web. Clicking on different spots on the Web map would bring up video images from that place. Or you might be a naturalist in the field, filming rare species, and want their precise location encoded on the videotape.
With this unit, as with others tested at the Government Computer News Lab, it's generally difficult to get a signal indoors because of the need to triangulate from three satellites, but outside the receiver works fine. I had trouble with it amid tall city buildings, but the signal mostly stayed strong as I drove around the Washington area.
What is exciting about the unit is its ability to tie GPS data to videotape. You plug the unit into a camcorder's microphone jack to transfer the GPS data stream that the unit generates as an audio signal for later display on a PC. That way, the location where each segment was shot is saved on the tape.
The GPS data goes onto one of the two audio tracks that are available on most tapes. If the camcorder can record in stereo, it will put the GPS data on one track and sound on the second track. I did not realize this as I cruised around or I would have lowered my radio's volume. But the capability for both sound and data makes the VMS 200 very useful.
To take full advantage of this system, you need several things not included in the package. The first is a compatible camcorder. I tested the system with an 8mm Sony Handycam, which had an infrared spotlight so I could even work in the dark.
The second extra is a TV tuner card for the PC. I used a standard TV PCI card that worked fine.
Back in the office, you plug the camera into the TV card's port to view your data. Using the VMS Player software, you can overlay GPS data from the videotape onto city maps. The map software is fairly extensive, and you can import other maps if you choose.
VMS Player is surprisingly intelligent. For example, if you've shot a cityscape on a camcorder that has a remote-control time controller, you can click on the map and the software will automatically fast-forward the tape to the spot where the camera passed that location.
You can also assign photos to the map and output everything in HTML for posting on the Web. Web visitors can click on the map to see a photo of the area. Videos as well as still photos can be embedded in the map.
I do have a complaint about the length of the cables that come with the unit. The GPS antenna is taller than I am, though I could wrap it around me while walking. The audio cord to the camera had a tendency to tangle when I was walking. And I can understand not including an expensive camera in the package, but Red Hen could have made the TV card standard, or at least an option, because it is essential for processing. Another complaint: To make sure the GPS signal is present while filming, you have to keep checking the little black box's indicator lights.
Despite minor flaws, the VMS 200 would make a great tool for field surveys, natural resource work and law enforcement.
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VMS 200 Video Mapping System
Red Hen System Inc.
Fort Collins, Colo.
Web address: www.redhensystems.com
Price: $2,890 with internal GPS receiver and standard software
+ Marries video and GPS data
+ Software powerful and easy to use
- Extras needed to make system work
- Cables unwieldly for field use
Report card grade: A-
Real-life requirements: VCR or 8mm camera with RC port and TV tuner card; Windows 95 or 98, Pentium II running at 266 megahertz or faster; and plenty of memory for film processing.