Introduction: $5 Laptop Document Camera for Video Conferencing

Published 20200811 by John E. Nelson

I recently published an Instructable demonstrating the use of a laptop camera module to make a desktop document camera for video conferencing.

I demonstrate below how to adapt this concept to use on a laptop computer. Advantages include lower cost than the desktop version, the camera and arm are easy to remove and set-up, the arm is portable, and right and left hand use is easily accomplished by inverting the camera on the arm. I apologize in advance that the construction is rudimentary as I used hand tools and left over material. When I have the opportunity to 3-D print the camera shroud and 3-D print an attachment mechanism to the arm I will update.

Document cameras to be used in online meetings cost $60 to $150 from online retailers. With the sudden COVID-19 related transformation from in-person learning to remote learning over the internet has come a high demand for document cameras. These cameras permit a student or coworker to demonstrate their work during a class or business meeting.The high cost prevents widespread use in K-12 and the demand for document cameras has outstripped supply even for colleges and universities. Document cameras are an integral part of cPLTL (cyber Peer-Led Team Learning ).

Document cameras I believe would be a good project for a group of makers. Over a weekend dozens of document camera systems can be made for a local school at low cost.

Step 1: USB Laptop Camera Replacement Module

The actual USB camera costs $4 and can be purchased in bulk from AliExpress. A word of caution, if you are buying one or two, the mailing costs can exceed the cost of the camera. It is better to make a bulk purchase of say 100 cameras and pay the air freight for speedier delivery. Also, if you order with a university or school mailing address the package may make it through customs a bit quicker. A single small package going to a residential address may languish in US customs for weeks before they pass it through.

The camera I chose is a 1280x1024 1.3 Mp 60 degree view laptop camera replacement module with a USB dongle. A prewired 12” USB cable comes the the model I chose. The red tab is a protective cover for the camera and should be removed prior to use. I have used it with PC, Linux and Mac computers. I am still trying to figure out how to address the camera from a ChromeBook.Ideally the video conferencing software can present a split screen or picture in picture so that a person’s face can be shown along with the document.

The laptop version can be used on the left or right. The 12” cable is just long enough to plug into a USB port on the side of the computer. If a USB port is not available in the correct position then the cable would have to be lengthened as described in my previous Instructable.

Step 2: Camera Support Arm

The camera is supported on a ½” x ¼” x 10” strip of wood available at home improvement stores or lumber yards or cut from larger stock if you have a table saw. A hole is drilled and a slot cut in one inch from one end to accept a 2 ½” #8 screw with 32 threads per inch. The screw is glued in place and a thin piece of wood is glued to each side to strengthen the assembly.

The arm is held to the exterior shell of the computer screen using Velcro type material. The loops (fuzzy side) are adhered to the arm and the hooks are adhered to the outside of the computer shell.

Step 3: Camera Shroud

The camera module shroud was cut in a T-shape from 3/16” thick birch plywood. A hole was drilled for the camera and the module was hot glued in place and sandwiched with spacers between the upper and lower pieces of plywood. If you have a laser cutter you can achieve better fit and finish than my quick hand cuts. If you have a 3D printer I suggest printing a case to make attachment to the arm more convenient and to protect the camera board. Also cable routing and strain relief can be incorporated into a 3D printed case. Remember that the camera module is meant for a laptop and the long side of the board corresponds to horizontal. If the camera orientation is changed you would have to rotate the image in software and not all video conferencing software may support that function. The camera shroud is held to the arm with a #8 -32 wing nut. By using a screw to hold the camera in place, if the laptop screen angle is changed the camera position can be changed.

Step 4: Camera in Use

A webm video file was captured from the computer window showing the document camera view. The real time field of view is a normal sized page but after capture I cropped and clipped the webm file to condense the file size. In the Instructable describing this I had to convert the webm file to MP4 and upload to YouTube to have the Instructable reference the video. Instructables does not accept GIFs or MP4s, rather they require a link to a YouTube file. Remember to set your software video capture software to the maximum resolution for your camera module to achieve the best results.