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Demoing Smartphone Apps with a Webcam

I've been having a lot of fun this year giving talks and demos about smartphone apps, especially on the Apple iPhone and Google Android.

The trick for demoing smartphones, of course, is to find a good way to let the audience see what you're doing on the small screen. You can use a webcam display from a laptop, but it's tricky trying to hold up the camera to the phone, and you can get bad reflections and glare on the phone's screen.

My answer is to set up a simple rig with the Joby Gorillapod SLR -- a highly flexible mini-tripod that you can bend to fit to any surface, from a table to a slanted podium (see earlier post).

The Gorillapod SLR model is big enough that you can position the camera about 8 inches off the surface, and then spread out the legs to give enough clearance above the phone and to the sides so that your fingers can work comfortably on the touch screen. You also can tweak the angle of the tripod so that the phone image is squared up, without perspective distortion. The Gorillapod SLR is priced at around $39.

The webcam that I'm using is the Logitech Webcam C905 (formerly the QuickCam Pro for Notebooks) -- a small design around 2 x 1 inches for easy carrying (see earlier post). The webcam has a clip that holds securely to the base plate of the Gorillapod -- so there's no screws or other assembly required. It's also helpful to add a USB extension cable to allow you to position the tripod further away from your laptop if needed to fit a particular facility. The Logitech webcam is priced at $99, or around $75 street.

I typically run the QuickCam at 1280x1024 resolution, which clearly shows the details on the smartphone screen. Even with video flowing at this higher resolution, there's no obvious degradation of the system performance oven on an older lower-end laptop.

When showing demos, the phone fills almost the full height of the video window. The Logitech software also can apply a small digital zoom if desired to enlarge the size of the phone's screen. Since I'm not running full-screen, it then just takes a click on the laptop to switch back and forth between showing the live camera feed and other presentation material.

The result is quite good, even when you're trying to shoot a bright screen in a dark room, or with glare from overhead lighting. I've found it best to override the auto settings and manually adjust the focus and brightness / contrast to pull out the detail on the phone's screen. It also helps to place a plain background under the phone (even a white piece of paper).

One other issue with shooting phones is reflections and glare on the screen. I have experimented with polarizing filters to knock down some of the glare. You can get packs of 2 x 2 inch polarizing film from companies like Edmund Optics, cut it to fit over the camera lens, and simply tape it in place. However, these are not going to make serious reflections magically disappear. Instead, I've been able to adjust the tripod setup to control the lighting issues, sometimes aided by turning off particularly troublesome podium lighting.

The result is an easy to carry set-up that also simple to set up, and has produced good results in a variety of venues. The trick is to spend some time to optimize the set-up for the particular facility before the talk starts -- and be sure to check that the organizers aren't planning to change the lighting as you get underway.

See my Digital Photo Cameras Gallery for more on the Gorillapod and other tripod accessories

See my Home Networked Media Gallery for more on the Logitech Webcam C905 and other webcams

Find the Joby Gorillapod SLR and
Logitech Webcam C905 on Amazon.com.

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