Styropod: taking smartphone Video for Architecture & Demos

While starting a new project, I often find myself watching a number of application demos and walkthroughs, both for existing systems and for potential new systems or components. This includes walkthrough of legacy systems about to be replaced (“this is how it works today…”) and vendor proof-of-concept demos for new products being considered.

The problem is that it’s hard to remember the details of a demo. Handwritten notes are too often sparse. Many times I find myself wanting to refer to a specific UI behavior or function shown during demos.

In most cases, these demos take place in a conference room with a projector that throws the screen display up on a wall. So the obvious solution is to record a video of the screen displayed on the wall (with the permission of the meeting participants.)

Here’s a quick sample video I shot (it’s not framed correctly because I rushed it. Normally you want to make sure the entire screen is within the video frame.)

Sample Video taken with Smartphone using StyroPod

So I’ve found myself recording as many demos or architectural design sessions I can. I also found that using my iPhone 4 is completely adequate to record these demonstrations and presentations. Even though the videos recorded this way won’t win any awards, they offer a number of advantages over only handwritten/typed notes; the video captures:

  • Complete visual recall – You can always go back and find out exactly what happened in the UI or how the app/system functioned. No more saying “I think I remember seeing it do things this way.”
  • Explanatory commentary – It’s easy to hear the running commentary accompanying the visuals.
  • Related Side conversations – You can catch important side conversations that have relevance to the project.

Using videos of projected screens

Here are just some of the ways I’ve used these videos:

  • Screen Snapshotting – There’s usually a handful of points in a demo when the screen/UI shows some critical visual state, but it’s impossible to know when they occur. It’s easier to go through the video later to take those important “screen captures” that can then be shared or documented.
  • Capture of design reasoning – Too often we see the ‘end result’ of a design, but don’t have any record of the design reasoning or discussion that went into it. The video will often contain that design reasoning in the form of accompanying comments (e.g., “we ended up with this design because..”)
  • Training – These videos make quick-and-dirty training materials, especially early in a project and for new team members.
  • Reference material – These videos allow for historic references and easier side-by-side comparison of designs.

Projection screen videography via a Styro-pod

In the past, video ‘taping’ demos – particularly of the projector screen – in conference rooms required a camcorder and tripod. Now it just require two pieces of equipment: a smartphone and a Styrofoam cup.

The smartphone is easy: most of us (at least us techies doing architecture and system design work) have smartphones, most of which now have HD (usually 720p) support. I myself currently have/use an iPhone 4.

The Styro-pod (or StyroPod)

Typically many modern conference rooms have a projector on the table or mounted from the ceiling, with the computer’s displayed on a screen or blank wall. All that’s needed is a way to point the camera at that projected image.

Sure, I’d love to use a cool tripod setup, including a table-top tripod such as a GorillaPod. But not only do I travel with enough equipment as it is, I often will end up in a conference room without my bag – but I always have my phone with me. (In typical nerd fashion, I carry my phone on my belt.)

Just standing up the phone the table, leaning it on a solid object to get it at the correct angle to point towards the screen, usually isn’t enough. When I started to do this, too often the phone would simply slip and fall, especially if the table was bumped (which happens more often than not.)

The solution came in the form of a small Styrofoam cup that I took from the nearby coffee station. I found that I could easily cut an appropriate angled slot in the bottom of the cup and just mount the phone into that slot. Poof: StyroPod as an Instant stable platform. (Should I ™ that? 😉

Styropod-3.Styropod-2.

Before I cut the slot into the cup, I find the approximate angle and distance I need to place the phone on the table so the projection screen fills in the video image. I the cut a slot at that angle for the depth of the phone. It doesn’t have to be exact; I found that the cup allows for some amount of adjustment through a little pushing or twisting. (If the cup gets screwed up somehow, I just start with a new cup.)

Tips

Here are some quick tips on using your smartphone to record these quick reference videos.

  • Plug it in – Recording video sucks up the battery
  • Use HD (if available) – The more detail you can capture the better.
  • Make sure there’s Lots of free storage/memory available – You’ll need about 2GB for 30 minutes of video (at least for an iPhone 4
  • Turn on Airplane mode – if you get a call while recording, it’ll stop recording.
  • Watch for video length limitations – on the iPhone 4 it seems that videos are limited to just under 4GB, which gives you about 4
    0-60 minutes, depending on video complexity.
  • Import and name the videos as soon as possible – the labeling rule applies here. Also, the sooner you import them into your laptop/pc, the sooner you can delete the videos from your phone and have space for more.

It’s been done

Of course this is nothing new. YouTube has plenty of videos of “screen captures” taken with smartphones. Microsoft’s Channel 9 is a great example of taking informal videos to capture architecture explanations and design overviews. However, I continually encounter IT and software organizations that still consider video too high-tech to capture the demos, designs, and discussion that drive their system designs.

Instead of having low-cost (but visually useful) videos of design and demo sessions, too many companies spend their time and money getting people in a room to explore design ideas (and reasoning) – and then rely entirely on people’s ephemeral memory and hard-to-share handwritten notes . How many times have you heard “do you remember seeing…?” and other comments when your team members try to recall details from a demo or design session?

Why not use screen-capture software? Ideally, yes, using a screen capture tool like Captivate, Camtasia, or CamStudio provides for a higher quality video from computer screens. They’re great; however, they have to be installed (and tested) ahead of time on the laptop/pc used to demonstrate designs.

Also, screen capture software (even if it’s installed on the ‘demo machine’) is not as fast and versatile as using a smartphone. Not only are smartphones readily available, but they can not only capture the “screen”, but can also easily capture the whiteboard discussion that accompanies architecture design presentations.

A smartphone can quickly turn a vaguely recalled discussion, demo, and even excellent set of ideas that emerged on a whiteboard into a useful architecture artifact. In the case of whiteboard discussions, often the most important information is in the action: how the diagrams evolved and discussed, not the final static whiteboard image at the end of the meeting.

Limitations (but no show-stoppers)

There are many limitations in taking smartphone videos of demos and architecture presentations; I’m sure you’ve already thought of several.

In addition to the specific smartphone limitations mentioned above, here are what I consider critical shortfalls to consider:

Video is a sequential medium – Unless you spend lots of time editing, viewing a video takes time (but that’s kind of the point as it contains all the detail – even the dead-air and fluff.)

  • Privacy concerns – some folks may not like the idea of having a demo or screen discussion recorded. By only recording the projection screen, it’s easy to keep to other meeting participants visually out of the recording, which can lower resistance to recording.
  • Size and sharing – With file sizes in GBs, it’s still not easy to store and share these kinds of videos. Enterprise portals typically won’t support uploads that large. YouTube is an possibility (uploading as unlisted), but that increasing the potential privacy and confidentiality issues. So far the primary means of sharing I’ve used are USB drives and traditional internal file servers, but I’ve also started using Dropbox and SkyDrive as well, since those allow for controlled access.
  • Useful shelf-life – Not all videos taken this way are useful, especially over time. But like with digital photography, it’s ok to take lots of videos and get rid of them later (or just archiving them). And remember, the best camera is the one you actually have with you (and use).
  • Keystoning – With the smartphone on the conference room table, pointing upwards towards the screen, the angle of the lens creates some visual distortion. Yeah, it’s not great, but it’s a minor issue from my standpoint.
  • Environmental concerns – Using a disposable Styrofoam cup isn’t the best environmental choice. I haven’t used a paper cup as a smartphone/camera stand yet, but it’ll probably work as well. Maybe someone will create a foldable adjustable stand for recording video at an angle. Perhaps Lego blocks are a better choice (As an AFOL, I’ll give a try sometime.)

So the next time someone starts an application walkthrough or a architectural design on a whiteboard, grab a cup and fire up your smartphone camera.

One Comment

  1. I can see how one can be so creative in improvising something very useful through the use of Styrofoam cups. As for this, you improvised a projector for your presentation. A very clever idea indeed.

    Reply

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