Tech that thrills and (survives) spills

October 5, 2010, 7:54 PM UTC

Finally, a Flip-like camera for those who prefer to be the ones flipping.

I should have known better. There was Nick Woodman, CEO of GoPro, which makes impossibly small cameras that go practically anywhere, loading up a tricked-out Sprinter with two all-electric Zero dirt bikes.

Woodman is a surfer along Northern California’s sharkiest stretch of coast. He races cars, rides dirt bikes, and jumps off all manner of things (usually into water). We were headed to a little stretch of seaside bluff, south of San Francisco near what the locals know as Pigeon Point. “We’ll just test the bikes out, and see who falls first,” Woodman said.  I though he was joking. [cnnmoney-video vid=/video/technology/2010/10/04/bst_gopro_hd_camera.fortune/]

Woodman has built a company focused on capturing images, first stills and now HD video (even 3D), in the most inhospitable places imaginable. Initially, Woodman was focused on building a waterproof camera with which he could shoot photos of himself and friends surfing. The camera had to be able to take a wave on the head, but it also had to be small and easy to use. You can’t paddle for a wave if you can’t use two hands. Woodman devised straps and connectors to make it easy to surf, and also bring back proof of that massive barrel he had made.

Like any good product, once GoPro cameras got into the hands of people, they discovered all sorts of uses for the tiny, rugged devices way beyond surfing. People sent back video to Woodman shot from the handlebars of bikes bombing fire roads, strapped to the roof of cars and motorcycle helmets, connected to the ends of telescoping poles held by snowboarders carving up three-feet of powder. It didn’t have to be some injury-prone sport either. GoPro cameras captured the action atop lawnmower racers (really), toddlers weaving across the living room, and skyward from remote control airplanes. They have been used by news crews at the Gulf oil spill, and deployed on big budget Hollywood film shoots including the latest from George Lucas. They are going into space.

And as Woodman has been perfecting the gizmos that attach GoPro’s cameras to everything, the big guns of the technology world have been pushing their sensors, their batteries and embedded software into ever-smaller packages. If you want to get a sense of how the tech world marches relentlessly forward, pick up the tangerine-sized (and that is with the waterproof housing) GoPro HD. For about $260, you get a full HD video camera that with the right attachment can fit anywhere. It’s a real world expression of Moore’s Law that happens to be a whole lot more fun to use than most bleeding-edge technology.

The proof of that came at Pigeon Point with Woodman acting as chase man as we did laps around a rutted path above the ocean. Both of us were strapped with GoPro cameras on the silent electric bikes and on our helmets. I even had one in a sort of outrigger contraption jutting out from my head and pointing back toward my face.

Second lap on turn two, I took Woodman’s bait and tried to scoot ahead on a deeply rutted section. “I am coming,” Woodman exhorted. Which, of course, caused me to give my 100% torque electric bike some extra throttle. Next thing, my feet left the pegs as the rut ate my front wheel, and the momentum sent me ass-over-teakettle as my grandmother used to say. I ended up in some bushes, which turned out were all that prevented me and the bike from sliding down a 15-foot cliff into the ocean.  Woodman let out a whoop, raised his arms in the air in victory, and congratulated me on my fall.

Later, viewing the spill on a large monitor, the room erupted in hoots and laughter, even after we had watched it five or six times. Like I said, it’s technology that is both bleeding edge and a lot of fun, and that is a winning combination. Oh, and those bushes that stopped my fall. I found out about a week later, as a rash crept up my back, they were poison oak. The fun just kept coming.