Document Camera for Under $50

With the cost of LCD projectors coming down, many more classrooms are being equipped with this technology.  However, document cameras remain quite expensive.  As I often need to project an enlargement of something on the screen, I decided to see if I could get similar functionality from cheap and readily available materials.

Since my projector is wired to my computer, I decided to go with a webcam as the video source.  I’ve seen many plans online for connecting camcorders and digital cameras to computers, and while they may provide a better quality and higher resolution image, a webcam serves the purposes of a document camera.  It’s definitely less bulky and the desktop microphone stand is great to hold up the tiny webcam.

The webcam (at least the one listed below) is plug-and-play with Windows XP.  Plug it in, open My Computer, click on USB Video Device, and it works out of the box.  No special software or drivers necessary.  The Genius webcam listed below offers 1280 x 720 resolution, though I believe that can only be achieved through the included software.  The most I’ve gotten Windows to do is 640 x 480.

The webcam is a manual focus by turning the lens, but if you set it to view a document once, it should be set for the most part.  I’ve seen the autofocus on a document camera do some weird things at times, so that may be for the best.  There is also no zoom on the webcam, so you have to adjust the mic stand to get different fields of view.  Also, the usb cord on the webcam was only about 5 feet long, so if you want to position it further from your computer, you’ll want to get a USB extension cable.  Note that if you want to use a USB hub with your webcam, you’ll need a powered one.

If you want a full-screen view of your webcam on the screen instead of the smaller view available through Windows Explorer, try FS Cam View.

Parts List:

Black 19 Inch Musician’s Gear Gooseneck Black 19 Inch $3.99

On-Stage Stands DS7100B Basic Fixed Height Desktop Stand $6.99

Musician’s Gear Clip-Type Mic Holder $1.95

Genius eFace 2025 2.0 M Effective Pixels USB 2.0 WebCam $24.99

Assembly is fairly straightforward.  Attach the gooseneck to the desktop stand and the clip-type mic holder to the gooseneck.  Clip the webcam onto the stand and use some cable ties or electrical tape to run the cord along the gooseneck out of the way.  Plug it in to an open USB port on your computer and Windows should recognize your webcam.

So there you have it.  A document camera for $37.92 plus a few bucks for shipping.  As a science teacher, I’ve used it to allow lab groups to share their experimental data and graphs with the class and to enlarge some chemistry lab safety demonstrations so the whole class can see them.  It’s worked pretty well so far.  Someone may find a better way to connect the webcam to the mic stand, but the clip-type mic holder works pretty well for me.

I’m also keeping my eyes peeled for some type of probably USB-powered lighting system that I can attach to the whole contraption, though the webcam does a decent job in medium light conditions.  Best of luck to those who build their own, and feel free to share your own ideas.

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