Raspberry Pi-Powered Dashboard Video Camera Using Motion and FFmpeg

Demonstrate the use of the Raspberry Pi and a basic webcam, along with Motion and FFmpeg, to build low-cost dashboard video camera for your daily commute.

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Dashboard Video Cameras

Most of us remember the proliferation of dashboard camera videos of the February 2013 meteor racing across the skies of Russia. This rare astronomical event was captured on many Russian motorist’s dashboard cameras. Due to the dangerous driving conditions in Russia, many drivers rely on dashboard cameras for insurance and legal purposes. In the United States, we are more use to seeing dashboard cameras used by law-enforcement. Who hasn’t seen those thrilling police videos of car crashes, drunk drivers, and traffic stops gone wrong.

Although driving in the United States is not as dangerous as in Russia, there is reason we can’t also use dashboard cameras. In case you are involved in an accident, you will have a video record of the event for your insurance company. If you witness an accident or other dangerous situation, your video may help law enforcement and other emergency responders. Maybe you just want to record a video diary of your next road trip.

A wide variety of dashboard video cameras, available for civilian vehicles, can be seen on Amazon’s website. They range in price and quality from less that $50 USD to well over $300 USD or more, depending on their features. In a popular earlier post, Remote Motion-Activated Web-Based Surveillance with Raspberry Pi, I demonstrated the use of the Raspberry Pi and a webcam, along with Motion and FFmpeg, to provide low-cost web-based, remote surveillance. There are many other uses for this combination of hardware and software, including as a dashboard video camera.

Methods for Creating Dashboard Camera Videos

I’ve found two methods for capturing dashboard camera videos. The first and easiest method involves configuring Motion to use FFmpeg to create a video. FFmpeg creates a video from individual images (frames) taken at regular intervals while driving. The upside of the FFmpeg option, it gives you a quick ready-made video. The downside of FFmpeg option, your inability to fully control the high-level of video compression and high frame-rate (fps). This makes it hard to discern fine details when viewing the video.

Alternately, you can capture individual JPEG images and combine them using FFmpeg from the command line or using third-party movie-editing tools. The advantage of combining the images yourself, you have more control over the quality and frame-rate of the video. Altering the frame-rate, alters your perception of the speed of the vehicle recording the video. The only disadvantage of combining the images yourself, you have the extra steps involved to process the images into a video.

At one frame every two seconds (.5 fps), a 30 minute commute to work will generate 30 frames/minute x 30 minutes, or 900 jpeg images. At 640 x 480 pixels, depending on your jpeg compression ratio, that’s a lot of data to move around and crunch into a video. If you just want a basic record of your travels, use FFmpeg. If you want a higher-quality record of trip, maybe for a video-diary, combining the frames yourself is a better way to go.

Configuring Motion for a Dashboard Camera

The installation and setup of FFmpeg and Motion are covered in my earlier post so I won’t repeat that here. Below are several Motion settings I recommend starting with for use with a dashboard video camera. To configure Motion, open it’s configuration file, by entering the following command on your Raspberry Pi:

sudo nano /etc/motion/motion.conf

To use FFmpeg, the first method, find the ‘FFMPEG related options’ section of the configuration and locate ‘Use ffmpeg to encode a timelapse movie’. Enter a number for the ‘ffmpeg_timelapse’ setting. This is the rate at which images are captured and combined into a video. I suggest starting with 2 seconds. With a dashboard camera, you are trying to record important events as you drive. In as little as 2-3 seconds at 55 mph, you can miss a lot of action. Moving the setting down to 1 second will give more detail, but you will chew up a lot of disk space, if that is an issue for you. I would experiment with different values:

# Use ffmpeg to encode a timelapse movie
# Default value 0 = off - else save frame every Nth second
ffmpeg_timelapse 2

To use the ‘do-it-yourself’ FFmpeg method, locate the ‘Snapshots’ section. Find ‘Make automated snapshot every N seconds (default: 0 = disabled)’. Change the ‘snapshot_interval’ setting, using the same logic as the ‘ffmpeg_timelapse’ setting, above:

# Make automated snapshot every N seconds (default: 0 = disabled)
snapshot_interval 2

Irregardless of which method you choose (or use them both), you will want to tweak some more settings. In the ‘Text Display’ section, locate ‘Set to ‘preview’ will only draw a box in preview_shot pictures.’ Change the ‘locate’ setting to ‘off’. As shown in the video frame below, since you are moving in your vehicle most of the time, there is no sense turning on this option. Motion cannot differentiate between the highway zipping by the camera and the approaching vehicles. Everything is in motion to the camera, the box just gets in the way:

# Set to 'preview' will only draw a box in preview_shot pictures.
locate off

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Optionally, I recommend turning on the time-stamp option. This is found right below the ‘locate’ setting. Especially in the event of an accident, you want an accurate time-stamp on the video or still images (make sure you Raspberry Pi’s time is correct):

# Draws the timestamp using same options as C function strftime(3)
# Default: %Y-%m-%d\n%T = date in ISO format and time in 24 hour clock
# Text is placed in lower right corner
text_right %Y-%m-%d\n%T-%q

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Starting with the largest, best quality images will ensure  the video quality is optimal. Start with a large size capture and reduce it only if you are having trouble capturing the video quickly enough. These settings are found in the ‘Capture device options’ section:

# Image width (pixels). Valid range: Camera dependent, default: 352
width 640

# Image height (pixels). Valid range: Camera dependent, default: 288
height 480

Similarly, I suggest starting with a low amount of jpeg compression to maximize quality and only lower if necessary. This setting is found in the ‘Image File Output’ section:

# The quality (in percent) to be used by the jpeg compression (default: 75)
quality 90

Once you have completed the configuration of Motion, restart Motion for the changes to take effect:

sudo /etc/init.d/motion restart

Since you will be powering on your Raspberry Pi in your vehicle, and may have no way to reach Motion from a command line, you will want Motion to start capturing video and images for you automatically at startup. To enable Motion (the motion daemon) on start-up, edit the /etc/default/motion file.

sudo nano /etc/default/motion

Change the ‘start_motion_daemon‘ setting to ‘yes’. If you decide to stop using the Raspberry Pi for capturing video, remember to disable this option. Motion will keep generating video and images, even without a camera connected, if the daemon process is running.

Capturing Dashboard Video

Although taking dashboard camera videos with your Raspberry Pi sounds easy, it presents several challenges. How will you mount your camera? How will you adjust your camera’s view? How will you power your Raspberry Pi in the vehicle? How will you power-down your Raspberry Pi from the vehicle? How will you make sure Motion is running? How will you get the video and images off the Raspberry Pi? Do you have one a mini keyboard and LCD monitor to use in your vehicle? Or, is your Raspberry Pi on your wireless network? If so, do you know how to bring up the camera’s view and Motion’s admin site on your smartphone’s web-browser?

My start-up process is as follows:

  1. Start my car.
  2. Plug the webcam and the power cable into the Raspberry Pi.
  3. Let the Raspberry Pi boot up fully and allow Motion to start. This takes less than one minute.
  4. Open the http address Motion serves up using my mobile browser.
    (Since my Raspberry Pi has a wireless USB adapter installed and I’m still able to connect from my garage).
  5. Adjust the camera using the mobile browser view from the camera.
  6. Optionally, use Motion’s ‘HTTP Based Control’ feature to adjust any Motion configurations, on-the-fly (great option).
Logitech Webcam C210 Webcam Mounted on Car Sun Visor

Logitech Webcam C210 Webcam Mounted on Car Sun Visor

Raspberry Pi in Vehicle with iPhone Preview of Dashboard Camera

Raspberry Pi in Vehicle with iPhone Preview of Dashboard Camera

Adjusting Dashboard Camera using iPhone Preview over LAN Connection to Raspberry Pi

Adjusting Camera using iPhone WiFi Connection to Raspberry Pi

Using Motion's HTTP Based Control on iPhone Mobile Web Browser

Using Motion’s HTTP Based Control on iPhone Mobile Web Browser

Once I reach my destination, I copy the video and/or still image frames off the Raspberry Pi:

  1. Let the car run for at least 1-2 minutes after you stop. The Raspberry Pi is still processing the images and video.
  2. Copy the files off the Raspberry Pi over the local network, right from car (if in range of my LAN).
  3. Alternately, shut down the Raspberry Pi by using a SSH mobile app on your smartphone, or just shut the car off (this not the safest method!).
  4. Place the Pi’s SDHC card into my laptop and copy the video and/or still image frames.
Shutting Down Raspberry Pi Using SSH Terminal iPhone App

Shutting Down Raspberry Pi Using SSH Terminal iPhone App

Here are some tips I’ve found to make creating dashboard camera video’s easier and better quality:

  • Leave your camera in your vehicle once you mount and position it.
  • Make sure your camera is secure so the vehicle’s vibrations while driving don’t create bouncy-images or change the position of the camera field of view.
  • Clean your vehicle’s front window, inside and out. Bugs or other dirt are picked up by the camera and may affect the webcam’s focus.
  • Likewise, film on the window from smoking or dirt will soften the details of the video and create harsh glare when driving on sunny days.
  • Similarly, make sure your camera’s lens is clean.
  • Keep your dashboard clear of objects such as paper, as it reflects on the window and will obscure the dashboard camera’s video.
  • Constantly stopping your Raspberry Pi by shutting the vehicle off can potential damage the Raspberry Pi and/or corrupt the operating system.
  • Make sure to keep your Raspberry Pi out of sight of potential thieves and the direct sun when you are not driving.
  • Backup your Raspberry Pi’s SDHC card before using for dashboard camera, see Duplicating Your Raspberry Pi’s SDHC Card.

Creating Video from Individual Dashboard Camera Images

FFmpeg

If you choose the second method for capturing dashboard camera videos, the easiest way to combine the individual dashboard camera images is by calling FFmpeg from the command line. To create the example #3 video, shown below, I ran two commands from a Linux Terminal prompt. The first command is a bash command to rename all the images to four-digit incremented numbers (‘0001.jpg’, ‘0002.jpg’, ‘0003.jpg’, etc.). This makes it easier to execute the second command. I found this script on stackoverflow. It requires Gawk (‘sudo apt-get install gawk’). If you are unsure about running this command, make a copy of the original images in case something goes wrong.

The second command is a basic FFmpeg command to combine the images into a 20 fps MPEG-4 video file. More information on running FFmpeg can be found on their website. There is a huge number of options available with FFmpeg from the command line. Running this command, FFmpeg processed 4,666 frames at 640 x 480 pixels in 233.30 seconds, outputting a 147.5 Mb MPEG-4 video file.

find -name '*.jpg' | sort | gawk '{ printf "mv %s %04d.jpg\n", $0, NR }' | bash 
ffmpeg -r 20 -qscale 2  -i %04d.jpg output.mp4
FFmpeg Command Line Video Creation Output

FFmpeg Command Line Video Creation Output


Example #3 – FFmpeg Video from Command Line

If you want to compress the video, you can chain a second FFmpeg command to the first one, similar to the one below. In my tests, this reduced the video size to 20-25% of the original uncompressed version.

ffmpeg -r 20 -qscale 2 -i %04d.jpg output.mp4 && ffmpeg -i output.mp4 -vcodec mpeg2video output_compressed.mp4

If your images are to dark (early morning or overcast) or have a color-cast (poor webcam or tinted-windows), you can use programs like ImageMagick to adjust all the images as a single batch. In example #5 below, I pre-processed all the images prior to making the video. With one ImageMagick command, I adjusting their levels to make them lighter and less flat.

mogrify -level 12%,98%,1.79 *.jpg


Example #5 – FFmpeg Uncompressed Video from Command Line

Windows MovieMaker

Using Windows MovieMaker was not my first choice, but I’ve had a tough time finding an equivalent Linux gui-based application. If you are going to create your own video from the still images, you need to be able to import and adjust thousands of images quickly and easily. I can import, create, and export a typical video of a 30 minute trip in 10 minutes with MovieMaker. With MovieMaker, you can also add titles, special effects, and so forth.

Single Images Combined in Windows MovieMaker

Single Images Combined in Windows MovieMaker

Sample Videos

Below are a few dashboard video examples using a variety of methods. In the first two examples, I captured still images and created the FFmpeg video at the same time. You can compare quality of Method #1 to #2.


Example #2a – Motion/FFmpeg Video


Example #2b – Windows MovieMaker


Example #5 – FFmpeg Compressed Video from Command Line


Example #6 – FFmpeg Compressed Video from Command Line

Useful Links

Renaming files in a folder to sequential numbers

Useful FFmpeg Syntax Examples

ImageMagick: Command-line Options

ImageMagick: Mogrify — in-place batch processing

http://wp.me/p1RD28-AW

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  1. #1 by uugan on July 4, 2013 - 1:02 am

    nice work! well done!

  2. #2 by Rob Collingridge on July 4, 2013 - 7:41 am

    I’m doing a similar project but taking a slightly different approach: http://www.dreamgreenhouse.com/projects/2013/picar/index.php

  3. #3 by Juan on September 3, 2013 - 7:52 pm

    Nice work. I like it. I want to build one, but I am very new to this Raspberry pi thing. I have a Microsof t Lifecam Camera.

    I wanted to know how to set my Pi so that it will record to an external USB drive. I am just having problems doing the edits. I don’t see anything happening. Think you can help me out?

  4. #4 by shrtcmngs on September 16, 2013 - 9:42 pm

    I’m glad to see this working so well on the pi. I just recieved the cam module for the raspi today and i am not sure how to get it working with motion on debian. Maybe I will figure it out soon unless someone can help? Thanks in advance.

  5. #5 by apple desktop repair on February 6, 2014 - 4:56 am

    Nice work. I like it. I want to build one, but I am very new to this Raspberry pi thing. I have a Microsoft t Life cam Camera.

  6. #6 by swamy on March 13, 2014 - 8:25 am

    hello sir,
    nice to see ur project.
    but i m doing same but no interface with internet, actually i want record the video with time stamp using ffmpeg but i m nt able to do that one can u help me.

    how to install the ffmpeg and how to record video with time stamp in raspberry pi

    actually before i use GUVCview player i used but it works fine but no date and time stamp

    please help me how to do…

  7. #7 by Roger on May 13, 2014 - 9:07 am

    This is the best way to capture every motion by the raspberry – pi and to make a video complete.

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