Working with Vantrue X2 Dashcam and Dashcam Viewer

Dashcams are becoming more and more affordable as they become easier to manufacture and their use becomes more ubiquitous. I had previously used a Rexing R2 dashcam but was looking to get into something with more robust data collection capability. The Rexing R2 served as a good initial exposure for dashcam operation and the associated workflow (storage, editing). I was able to incorporate dashcam operation into my working theory of data curation in that any dashcam data that was collected, even it is not inherently valuable, may prove valuable in the future, and thus, should be stored indefinitely.

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As a quick example of the usefulness of this kind of dashcam ubiquity, we can look to the meteor that touched down near Chelyabinsk, Russia in February 2013. Almost all of the footage is from dashcams, which are mandatory in the country to prevent insurance fraud, and CCTVs. I’m not saying I’m likely to catch a meteor coming down to Earth and it’s my responsibility as a dashcam owner to be prepared for that moment, but I’d rather be caught with it on rather than off. The footage can also become the medium for other creative expression.

I enjoy working with the footage, speeding it up and putting it alongside music. Driving is something I enjoy and editing driving footage provides a similar satisfaction. Unfortunately, the Rexing R2 and its fish-eyed convex lens was destined to end badly. The lens protruded beyond the safety of the bezel and all it took was one instance of accidentally setting it lens-side down on an abrasive surface for the lens to be slightly cracked, enough to blemish the picture.

Finding a camera which was immune to this kind of operator error was my first priority. Also important was the incorporation of a GPS unit with exportable data. I find a reasonable solution in the Vantrue X2. It was a steal on Amazon for $99, though seems to be out of stock now. It comes out of the box with 2K filming capability, expertly tailored night vision, 64GB microSD support, and an optional GPS mount. This cam checked all the boxes. Two days later I had it installed and took it for a test drive.

A couple things to consider right off the bat; I do quite a bit of driving on average and I’m not one who wants to dismount the camera and export all the footage several times a week. I also thought it would be irresponsible, since I’m storing this footage for whatever future opportunities might arise, to film in less than the full 2K resolution of the camera’s capability. 64GB SD card capability becomes just “OK” at this point, storing between 6 and 7 hours of data before needing to be hooked up to the computer and moved over. 128 or greater might be something I look for in the future, although I’m definitely not in the market for another camera. The 6 hours hasn’t been a problem except for a handful of times I’ve been driving long distances and found myself needing to offload the footage temporary on a device before delivering it to the storage server. However, the average user will not have these problems if they’re not meticulously hoarding this data. The camera has functionality that allows it to overwrite previous footage when it becomes full. Relying on this rolling recording will always assure you have the last 6 hours of driving footage, no maintenance required.

Armed with the camera and GPS mount, I was ready to collect the data, which came naturally over the following months. The next step in this geographic exploration was to incorporate this data in some sort of map. This led me to theĀ Dashcam Viewer by Earthshine Software. This program extracts the GPS data from the videos, plots them on a map, and allows you to cartographically exam your driving. Dashcam Viewer is available for Windows and Mac. Sadly, there is not an official Linux version, although I haven’t tried emulating it on a Linux machine with Wine.

 

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The first video I thought to make was a realtime video with two maps of different scale, showing where the vehicle is in relation to the surroundings that might not be visible on film. Dashcam viewer includes lines that show differences in relative speed which is a nice touch, and saves time compared to crunching this data manually in something like ArcGIS.

Capturing the map footage required a little ingenuity. I couldn’t save the video of the Dashcam coordinate route so I thought capturing video of the desktop then cropping it to the window in question would the easiest route to get a result. The finer details could be ironed out afterwards. I was able to create the two cropped videos of the maps and using the Filmora editor, was able to combine them with the actual footage. A little editing flare and some music was all it took to combine this rough draft, which served as a proof of concept for future projects.

 

 

Next I wanted to move onto timelapse videos so these new map perspectives could be incorporated. The length of the editing process is something I’m still trying to reduce with this workflow. Capturing the 2 maps in realtime using Xsplit to capture the desktop adds 2 times the length of the original footage to the process. For the next project, I wanted to use a 4 hour segment of films. This would require 8 hours of desktop capture, not acceptable for a productive workflow, but for what I am doing in this early proof-of-concept stage, getting the results is more important than the workflow.

I started running into limitation in the Filmora video editor. Editing with multiple video sources was limited, and I couldn’t export the final production in glorious 2K resolution due to the 1080p limit. Filmora isn’t native to Linux which is the ecosystem I’m trying to move all my production towards. Wine emulation is poor. For the future, I’m looking towards Da Vinci Resolve by BlackMagic. This, I assume, is an intermediate video editing application where Filmora is focus more on entry level editing.

The idea for the second project using the new dashcam was based around a 4 hour trip. I captured all the media. Moved it over to my Windows machine to edit with Filmora. To make the editing process easier, I focused on one source at a time. First, I merged all the dashcam footage into one video. This machine is working with a Q6950 processor so all rendering had to be done overnight. Once the dashcam footage was one video, it was easily muted sped up by a factor of ten, then rendered again. This gave me finalized footage I wouldn’t have to edit when piecing all the sources together.

I then booted up dashcam viewer and started the desktop capture of the maps in realtime. This took over 8 hours for both maps. Once the capture was complete, they were put through some quick editing so post-production would just be piecing the sources together. They were sped up 10x and rendered individually with custom resolutions, so they could sit on top of the original footage seamlessly.

The first map was set to “follow” the GPS signal at a small scale. The second map would show a majority of the trip and often the starting point and destination in the same frame. These provided two different perspectives for the footage in case the viewer wants supplementary geographic information.

Syncing all the footage was something that turned out to be more complicated than expected. I originally wanted the final editing procedure to be just piecing together the three sources, the dashcam footage, and the two maps. However, the maps were often out of sync with the footage, and had to be adjusted manually every few minutes. This led to chopping up the footage, creating errors in the maps halfway, thanks to Filmora and operator errors.

Post production included adding the music, adding the song information, and fading in and out where appropriate. The final product is not perfect, as there are map errors in the middle of the video and at the end, but I’m happy with how the workflow and the product ended up.

 

In the future, I hope to choose a different editor, and see if I can find an additional way to capture and render the maps, with a focus on speed of production. I’d love to find other ways to incorporate GPS information like bearing and speed into the video. Until then, it’s off to add to the every growing collection of dashcam footage.

Building an Untangle Box

A few weeks ago I did a quick write up about the Untangle firewall system my experience installing and using it on a Protectli Vault all-in-one mini PC. Today I’d like to describe a box I set up as an alternative to the model I previously used, the Protectli Vault. For this box I used an old Optiplex 780 purchased on Amazon for $87. I’ve been using the OptiPlex 780 for the starting point in a lot of projects recent due to the fact that it’s modular by nature, easily upgradable, and has components that are powerful enough to tackle any moderately resource intensive modern tasks.

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The OptiPlex made a great jump-off for this project. I wanted an untangle box that was a small form factor so it could be easily incorporated into the physical environment where it would be operating but not fquite as small as the Protectli Vault setup I had used before. I tried to keep the budget around around $370, the price of the original Protectli Vault Setup. I wanted to keep the at least as powerful of the Protectli Vault build.

First I took a look at the RAM. The OptiPlex 780 has 4 dual channel DDR3 slots onboard. This is more than capable enough to match the RAM loadout on the Vault. I was able to find an 8GB kit of two DDR3 1600MHz sticks for $56 on Amazon. These sticks were plenty powerful for what I was building. The 7800 came with 4GB of RAM preinstalled, allowing some cost to be recouped. This 4GB might be enough if the amount of services running in the Untangle installation were minimal.

Next was the storage solution. The Vault comes with 120GB of solid state memory so I figured a 2.5″ SSD would be a suitable match for the OptiPlex. I found a SanDisk 120GB SSD, again on Amazon, for $60. This would provide quick read/write speeds for typical Untangle operation and open up the possibility of using disk space for swap operation if the need arose. The 780 comes with a harddrive already installed and they range between 160GB and 250GB. After the SSD installation, these could be salvaged for other projects or to recoup some cost.

Arguably the most important part of this particular build is the network interface. The 780 comes equipped with just the 1 network interface onboard out of the box. This, by itself, isn’t capable of being a functional box. There needs to be at least 2 ethernet ports, one for the internal connection and one for the external connection, for the box to function as a firewall. I decided it would be appropriate incorporate a 4-port 1000Mbps NIC to allow for up to 4 external connections. This one-upped the Vault by allowing an additional connection compared to the 3. I purchased the PRO/1000 Ptquadport from Amazon for $56 (now $50) and, in turn, freed up a 4-port switch I had been using to route local traffic, allowing addition cost reclamation by selling this redundant equipment. The NIC had to be low-profile to accommodate the reduced room in the small form-factor OptiPlex. I decided to additionally include a single port card in the spare PCI slot, bringing the number of external ports to an unprecedented 5.

Finally, I wanted to include a beefy quad-core CPU to again one-up the Protectli Vault. The Q9650 was a work-house Core 2 Quad-core chip in its day and still packs a wallop. This monster can hang with new processing solutions and would be more than enough for this build, theoretically capable of routing over a gigabit of traffic at any time and possibly much more depending on how many local services Untangle is running. I was able to secure one from Amazon for $49. Installing the chip however was tricky.

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During the install I periodically powered up the build to ease troubleshooting if problems arose. The assembly did turn out to problematic when I installed the NIC and the new processor. Replacing the CPU was probably this most time intensive step in the process. This process included removing the existing E8500 chip in the OptiPlex, another redudant part that could be sold. The process was made easier by the easily removable heatsink secured by two screws. The hood attached to the heatsink is easily detached from the HDD assembly. Thermal paste was then applied to the new Q9650 and the heatsink was the reattached. The system did not boot, and the OptiPlex was showing the error code “2 3 4”, displayed on the lights at the bottom of the front of the chassis. These lights were accompanied by a solid amber light emanating from the power button, indicative of CPU issues.

Troubleshooting was easy enough. I had a spare OptiPlex 780 laying around that had identical specs andd installed the Q9650 in it after removing it from the Untangle build. Luckily, it booted up, eliminating the possibility that the chip was faulty. I then tried the sparee OptiPlex’s chip, another Q9650, in the new build. This attempt also failed to boot, producing the same error indicators for a faulty chip. This confirmed the problem was local to the new build and narrowed it down to a problem with the board or some part of the CPU assembly. Luckily, the problem was due to how the heatsink was mounted, so no faulty hardware was involved. I attached the heatsink by tightening the screws nearest to the DVD drive first instead of the opposite. This pressure differential most have secured the CPU in an optimal way because the machine booting up properly on the next attempt.

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The assembly of all the components was relatively painless apart from the CPU hiccup. With the machine up and running and the software configured, we were off to the races. The physical environment was prepared with a small shelf so the box itself could set out of the way. It was anchored to the wall using some wire to prevent any nudges from sending it crashing to the floor. The build was officially ordained with an Untangle sticker on the case.

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The final price was $308, and with current prices, this total is just below $300, putting us about $70 below budget.

OptiPlex 780 $87

2x4GB DDR3 1600MHz RAM $56

SanDisk 120GB SSD $60

4-Port NIC $56

Q9650 Processor $49

Total: $308

If the micro form factor provided by the Protectli Vault isn’t a necessity it is demonstrably proven that a box with a superior CPU and network solution is built for around $70 cheaper. This box can handle anything that will be thrown at it in the foreseeable future and is powerful enough to utilize all of the features in the Untangle software suite. In this scenario the OptiPlex once again proves to be an optimum solution.