In 2019, a photographer from San Francisco designed, built, and launched one of the most innovative and bizarre cameras of its kind: the Idolcam. While GoPro and DJI rely on sensor stablization and digital wizardry to create smooth footage, Idolcam does something completely different.
Vlogging cameras and action cameras have evolved rapidly over the last decade, and a plethora of GoPro competitors have sprung up, with countless cheap knock-offs promising stellar performance that often turns out to be very disappointing. Offshoots have also emerged, such as the 360 variants and those with tiny gimbal mechanisms — the sort of technology that you would expect from large, international corporations with huge design teams and vast resources.
What you don’t expect is for a tiny company consisting almost entirely of one photographer to create something that’s on par with — and in some respects, is more creative than — many of the vlogging devices that have been produced in the last couple of years.
Jason Lam, a Chinese-born photographer who moved to San Francisco when he was 10, is the brains behind Idolcam, a 4K camera with a built-in gimbal, impressive audio quality, and interchangeable lenses. Without a background in design or engineering, he has brought to market what is arguably one of the most innovative vlogging solutions available. Almost a decade ago, he was experimenting with creating some of the first drones, building on his experiences of attaching compact cameras to remote-controlled helicopters. Having built a helicam and a hexacopter, Lam then created a professional-quality, three-axis gimbal for the new generation of small cinema cameras that were emerging.
Back in 2015, GoPro cameras and their equivalents produced unstabilized footage, restricting their potential as vlogging devices, and Lam decided to bring together his knowledge of small cameras and miniaturized gimbals to offer something different. His goal was to create a vlogging system that was compact, easy to use, offered a selfie screen, good audio, a joystick, and swappable lenses. After hours of learning via YouTube how to use computer-aided design and engineering software, Lam produced his first design using a 3D printer at home. This proof-of-concept allowed him to approach manufacturing partners and figure out if this could be a product that could be sold to a consumer market.
After a year of research, further development, and securing funding, production began in partnership with an industrial design firm based in Shenzhen, China. Lam worked with three different gimbal companies before finalizing the design. Various hurdles had to be overcome, including 500 sets of motor parts that did not meet Lam’s specifications and working through a total of seven prototypes.
The Idolcam is an intriguing device. Its advantages over a GoPro Hero or the DJI Osmo Action are clear: stabilization is mechanical, not digital, and some will claim that this makes footage feel more natural. The audio quality is excellent, you can create motorized time-lapses, and the interchangeable lenses make this device highly versatile. In addition, a fourth-axis arm makes footage even more stable, removing much of the bounce caused when walking. There are disadvantages, however: the Idolcam is far from waterproof and nowhere near as rugged and much less convenient to carry. The niche filled by Idolcam is not huge, but there’s nothing else like it on the market.
Lam’s current focus is to incorporate live-streaming into the Idolcam, but he also plans a stand in order to extend the camera’s potential as a microscope and a 350mm-equivalent lens for birdwatching and sports. There are also ideas for integration with a remote control car and potentially some sort of aerial device.
Have you used an Idolcam? Let us know your experiences in the comments below.