Minoru Webcam Lets You See the World in 3D

minoru1Is it a Webcam or a mini-robot? That’s the question the Minoru 3D Webcam had me asking. This red and silver camera uses two eyeball-like lenses to capture images in 3-D, and it does a decent– though imperfect — job at that task.

The Minoru 3D Webcam attaches to your Windows Vista or XP machine (no Mac version is available) via USB 2.0 only. You plug it in, pop in the CD, and the drivers install automatically — which is a good thing, because the sparse set of instructions that came with the camera contained no text, only a set of vaguely confusing images. The instructions reminded me of the diagrams you get with furniture purchased from IKEA; luckily the Minoru handles most of the work for you.

Once you’ve installed the camera, you need to adjust its settings. The process is a bit more detailed than setting up your average, 2-D webcam. Here, you have to manually adjust the focus of each lens — best not to think of them as eyeballs when you’re twisting them! You then have to adjust the horizontal and vertical alignment in order to get a true 3-D effect. The video capture windows shows two images of your subject: one in blue and one in red. You have to merge both the red and blue images until they overlap exactly; you do this using on-screen sliders, which are easy to operate, but I found it difficult to get an exact match. Once you’ve lined up your subject both horizontally and vertically, you can begin capturing 3-D video.

To see the video in 3-D, you’ll need a pair of 3-D glasses — and sadly, these look just as they did in the 1980s. The Minoru includes five pairs of the cardboard beauties, so you can share them with your friends and family who’d like to see your videos in their three-dimensional glory.  These glasses are one of the biggest limitations of the Minoru camera: You’ll have to send them to anyone who wants to see your videos the way they’re meant to be seen.

And the cheap, cardboard frames are not exactly durable, so if the glasses become unwearable, your viewers are out of luck. That’s because some of the 3-D videos border on unwatchable without the glasses. Some of my clips looked just a bit off, with noticeable blue and red halos around the subject. But other 3-D clips looked blurred and washed out without the glasses. See the video clip below for a sample; while this particular video looked noticeably better on my desktop than it does here, you can still see how the 3-D capabilities affect it. You can capture 2-D videos with the Minoru, too, but the product would really work best if you could capture one video clip that could be seen in either 2- or 3-D. (It worked for that Super Bowl commercial, right?)

With the glasses, I found the 3-D videos to look pretty realistic. My short video clips weren’t as impressively three-dimensional as, say, Jaws 3-D seemed back in 1983; I remember thinking a shark might actually leap off the movie screen back then. But overall, the videos were clearly 3-D, as long as my subject stayed in the same general area, that is. I tested the camera using two very squirmy subjects — my kids — and when they moved too far forward or backward, the alignment seemed to go out of whack, throwing the 3-D look off slightly. But if you’re using the webcam on a calmer, more adult subject, you’ll likely see much more consistent results.

You can select the resolution for your video: 320 x 240; 352 x 288; 640 x 480; or 800 x 600. It has a 2D mode as well, and you can capture still snapshots in either 2D or 3D. The Minoru camera is compatible with most video chat services, including Windows Live Messenger and Skype, and can also be used to capture video clips for uploading to services like YouTube.

The Minoru is available for about $90 online. Traditional webcams start at around $20 to $30, so you’re paying a premium to get the 3-D functionality. While it’s fun to use, the Minoru’s 3D functionality is just too limited right now to make that premium price worth it.