Review of the X-View camera head for the X-Scooter
Although most reviews on Wetpixel refer to purely photographic and video equipment, I thought that most members might be interested in the X-View camera, or perhaps might be asked about it.
So, here’s a review of the X-View underwater video camera nose for the X-Scooter, also known as the CSI scooter. At the time of writing this, I’ve had this X-View for 8 weeks and placed roughly 60 dives on it.
This review is based on pre-release production hardware; there will be small changes in the final production hardware from what you’ll see here. Dive-Xtras places new designs in the hands of divers to get a hard shakedown with real world conditions, with changes and issues being resolved before placing a model in full-tilt production. With that said, I would expect there should only be small tweaks from what’s here in the review.
A Bit About Scooters
For those that are not familiar with the X-Scooter, it is a DPV – Diver Propulsion Vehicle – that is a refinement of the standard expedition scooter used by cave divers and technical divers. The original design, the Gavin scooter, uses lead acid batteries and a brushed 24V motor. These behemoths weigh in at 70 pounds plus. The X-Scooter brought aerospace engineering to scootering, using an electronically controlled motor, Nickel Metal Hydride batteries and a 30 pound weight, with a bit more performance than the Gavin.
Using a scooter is a diving-habit altering experience. Typical recreational dives for us have become 55 minutes with about 1.2 miles traveled. Shore diving has never been so rich; we reach pristine locations that very few frequent, unless they have a boat. Plus, it’s just plain fun.
The X-Scooter is built by Dive-Xtras, in Washington USA. Below we see the standard model, the Sierra, which has a one-piece aluminum nose that snaps onto the tail. The nose section contains a battery module, while the tail has the motor, motor electronics and drive train.
Standing on the scale the Sierra weighs in at 33 lbs, slightly less than an aluminum 80. It has 5 speeds, controlled through the trigger, and at the mid-point speed of 3, I see 70 minute burn (trigger) times, and 50 minutes at speed 5. The propeller, like most quality scooters, is variable pitch; the X, however, has extra pitch (thus speed) available for divers wearing a “monkey harness” for scuba, or freediving. A nice design high point of the X is that there are only two hull penetrations: the prop shaft seal (good to 600’) and the double o-ring protected main hull join (good to the hull crush depth of 2000’). And unlike other scooters, the X’s flood procedure is a simple rinse of the motor with fresh water and air dry. Every other scooter will require a trip back to the factory after a flood in salt water.
I’ll add that I strongly suggest not trying an X-Scooter – your checking account will instantly drain to nothing with a loud sucking sound.
The X-View nose came about because of an inquiry from the officials that oversee the Hawaiian Islands Preserve. They were looking for transportation that could easily cover ground underwater as they looked for evidence of poaching and fishing (this was the X-Scooter) and an easy way to document what they found.
This is supposed to be a review of the X-View camera head, so, here’s the X-View scooter ready to dive.
You’ll notice that the only remarkable outside difference from the standard scooter is the external video camera. What’s inside is quite another story; here are all the parts that are different from the standard Sierra X-Scooter.
The nose is a complete latch-on replacement for the standard Sierra nose. The battery has been modified to allow the video signal to pass through; also, it is the mount for the camcorder. You will need a video camera that accepts external analog video (the Canon Elura 100 is part of the package if you wish), and there are some miscellaneous small parts, like the camcorder mount and new weight bags for balancing the scooter.
Here’s the external color camera head, which swivels 360 degrees. The “feel” on the camera head is that it its pretty tight and firmly holds a position that it’s been rotated to. This camera has a roughly 70 degree wide field of view, and excellent low-light capability. The lens end is threaded and will accept filters with a thread size of 49mm.
The battery is the standard Rabbit Tool battery that has been modified with a video pass-through and a camera mount. The Deep Sea battery is also available with this modification.
Prepping for a dive
The X-Scooter is designed to fit into a standard 8” tank boot. This allows the scooter to be stored in a tank slot on dive boats, and users commonly place the scooter into a tank boot to stabilize the body when assembling.
One thing you’ll notice with the X-View is that the 8” tank boot trick doesn’t work, because of the positioning of the camera head. This is easily fixed with a bit of work with a saw (on the boot, not the scooter nose!).
Next is connecting the camera to the leads from the bottom of the battery. One is the camera power; the other is the video pass-through. This is very easy as the leads are quite generous in length.
After making the connections and seating the battery, the video camcorder is connected to the top video pass-through, then, the camcorder is mounted to the top of the battery.
At this point I usually snap the tail onto the nose and set the scooter aside until I’m ready to get into the water. In other words, the scooter will travel in this “almost ready to dive” configuration out to the dive site, without the tape running.
After arriving at the dive site, I’ll make sure everything is set up, climb into my suit, and generally be all ready to dive, but haven’t gotten into my harness yet.
Then, I’ll open up the scooter, and dismount the camcorder. Turning on the camcorder and setting it to record from the external video source is probably the hardest part of this whole process! After remounting the camcorder, I will carefully route the video and motor wires to the front of the camcorder; I have had several dives (until I figured out what had happened) where the wires hit the camcorder controls on the back and turned off the camcorder.
At this point, after snapping the tail back on, you have 60 or 90 minutes of video, depending on the record settings and tape length. I’ll put on my backgas and hop in.
Diving and performance
If you are already experienced with a scooter, the first thing you notice when you get in the water is the total lack of difference between the standard Sierra and the X-View. Speed, handling, acceleration, turning radius, they’re all the same. It’s utterly unremarkable and a total letdown for someone that’s expecting something that requires special skillz.
There is that little camera up there, though. So, the video portion is worth discussing.
In my testing, I found that the field of view is about 70 degrees wide horizontal in air, and 52 degrees horizontal in water. (For those that pick nits, this was actually 69.6 and 51.8 degrees respectively.) I had originally intended to paint a couple of lines in my field of vision on the nose, to help me visualize the angle of the camera. This I didn’t need to do. By design or by luck, the angle of the camera mimics that of your normal field of vision, so just by looking comfortably at a subject you’ll see the rough framing. Cool!
Given the simple optics of the camera head lens, it’s fairly sharp. Here’s a frame of video.
This was shot at a distance of 40 inches from the wall. The pegboard’s holes are 1 inch apart.
You’ll note that the lens exhibits moderate barrel distortion, as would be expected from the lens’ (photographically speaking) simple design. When viewing in-the-water footage you usually don’t even notice this. To get true rectilinear performance requires a hefty expensive chunk of glass, and this distortion is less than you’d see from an Inon accessory wide-angle lens, anyway. So I’m very happy with the performance of the lens.
There also is vignetting in several of the corners. This is a function of the retaining ring for the flat port in front of the camera and is pretty unavoidable. Yes, it’s possible to have better optical performance than this overall, but that’s using an add-on wide angle lens on a housed camcorder, where the cost of the add-on lens alone exceeds that of the X-View nose.
The camcorder I’ve chosen is the Canon Elura 100. This nice little camcorder records in MiniDV format, with 1 hour tapes. The recording settings can be either SP (highest quality) or LP. SP gets you 60 minutes of recording with a standard tape, EP gets you 90 minutes. Since I believe in starting from the highest quality master, all I’ve used is SP, but I can see the uses for LP from a documentation standpoint.
The Elura 100’s battery easily runs for two 60 minute recording sessions. After the first dive, it takes me a while to open the scooter and turn off the camcorder, and this time is included. It’s a good thing, too, because swapping the battery on the Elura is a PITA. I haven’t tried any dives w/ LP, but my feeling is that the battery will only last a single dive.
Shooting video is actually pretty easy, just point the scooter and that’s what you get. It is rather exciting to have tons of movement available at the touch of the trigger finger. Very quickly you end up aiming the camera head off axis to the left or right to get creative shots or get that “camera dolly” feeling. This, as well as the 90 degree left or right shots, are where your scooter skillz are put to the test, because you cannot easily turn without rolling the scooter around it’s long axis. I found myself very quickly becoming adept at over exaggerated flat turns, complete with fins stuck out far to the side and body contortions that I’m sure are comical (but they work!). Double-handing the shroud works well, too, in a pinch. And occasionally I find myself setting up for a shot with a locked-on trigger, one hand in the nose strap and the other hand panning the camera head.
At first, I found myself very protective of the camera head – I even had a label on it that said “NOT A HANDLE”. Ben had assured me that it was strong enough to actually be a handle, and I have since found that to be true. I no longer freak out when deckhands grab it to hoist the scooter out of the water.
The video camera is like any other, though, and I am careful to make sure it doesn’t look into the sun. When standing the scooter on its tail, I will leave the camera head pointing down. You know, common sensical type stuff.
Like everyone else with an X-Scooter, I have eventually gotten the weight and trim of the X-Scooter down to a near science, balanced flat and upright when I let go underwater. The only minor gripe I’ve had with the X-View is that the camera head is heavy enough to promptly roll the scooter inverted when I let go. This is a minor issue though.
A common question usually circles around the camcorder controls, or rather, lack of control. Pretty much you turn the camcorder to record, and close up the scooter. There is no way to white balance on the fly, or pause, or whatnot. This is purely a function of the refreshing simplicity of the X-View. I for one welcome the chance to have my regular ol’ scooter that records great video, without any extra housings or stuff to carry around. If WB and exact control of the camcorder are critically important to you, then for your tasks you really need an Amphibico or Gates or something anyway, not an X-View.
Since I keep track of power consumption, I found that the camera head does draw some battery power. For every hour the camera head operates, it will reduce your trigger time by about 75 seconds. Since I hook up the camera head before getting on the boat, and most boat rides are about an hour, I anticipate “losing” 2 to 3 minutes of trigger time, a small price to pay for video.
After reviewing the power recorder, I also found that my “trigger habits” had changed, too. In warm water, my normal is to have 72% trigger actuation throughout the course of a dive. With the X-View, this dropped to 58% as I tended to stop and shoot video of cool looking critters. This resulted in a net gain in available scooter time!
Below we see the power recording for a short dive with the X-View; this is the total battery draw (amps) in blue, and battery voltage in green. As you can see, a typical dive does not involve spending the entire time riding around, there are many stops and pauses to look at the scenery.
Discussing the company, Dive-Xtras, is certainly not out of order. Pretty much their primary product is the X-Scooter, and, technical diving training. Delivery times can vary from 3 weeks to tomorrow, depending on where they are in the build cycle; lately, I’ve been told, they build in lots of 60 and these are sold out in several weeks. The build quality is simply superb, it is what you would actually expect of a high-end camera housing. And Dive-Xtras has gained a reputation for support that places Ikelite to shame, it’s that good.
Cost of the standard Sierra X-Scooter is in the area of $3700 complete with battery and charger; they offer a “package deal” that includes a spares kit, compass mount and travel case for $4200. The X-View camera nose, although not finalized, adds about $1700.
After diving the X-View a lot, I switched back to my regular plain old Sierra body for a dive or two. This was an adventure in feeling lost, and really pointed out to me how simple assembly of the X is. “What the…all I did was drop in a battery and close the body?!? OMG, what did I miss?” The dives with the standard Sierra were certainly fun, although I found myself “setting up” for video shots I couldn’t get. This has me doing almost every dive with the X-View now, as it’s so easy to get video, and you never know when that shot of a lifetime will show up.
Whew! That’s a lot. I hope this review was helpful to you if you’re considering scootering, or scootering with video.
All the best, James Flenner