Photo Booths

We'd been talking about building some kind of digital photo booth for DNA Lounge for years, but never got around to it, and in the last month I've heard about two different people who've actually done it! They're both pretty awesome.

  • First there's Photoboof, a mobile Burning Man project that dispenses actual photos as well as (later) uploading digital ones. (Warning, insanely slow server.)
  • Then there's the a photo booth at a new SF bar called Shine that auto-posts the photos to Flickr (which means RSS feeds: shinephotobooth.)

I don't know the technical details about how either of these work, but if we ever do get around to building one of these ourselves, here's what I was thinking:

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  • There's a big wooden box with a seat in it, probably upstairs next to coat check.
  • There's a CRT monitor in the box, and a USB webcam, behind plexi.
  • Bouncing text on the screen says "press button to begin".
  • There's a big red button, wired up to a cannibalized mouse.
  • Pressing the button tells the software to:
    1. Trip a relay to turn on a 100 watt bulb;
    2. Display a live video image, and a 5 second countdown;
    3. Take a picture;
    4. Turn off the lightbulb;
    5. Display the picture for 30 seconds, or until the button is pressed again.
  • Then the image gets uploaded to the web site.

I know that most digital still cameras can be remote-controlled via USB, but I think a webcam and a lightbulb is probably sufficient; I doubt we need a "real" flash for this.

Hardcopy printouts would be nice, but too much of a hassle. Printers have a lot of moving parts in them, and I'd need this thing to be bulletproof and require pretty much zero maintenance for it to be worth the hassle.

I guess it's traditional for photo booths to take 3 or 4 pictures in a row, so maybe it should do that instead.


The main reason I never started messing around with this is that it involves one of my least favorite things in the whole wide world, talking to devices from Linux. E.g., I don't have the slightest idea what webcams are well supported by Linux, and the thought of even trying to figure that out makes me nauseous.

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71 Responses:

  1. ammonoid says:

    I still think it should be controlled by BAC, but I understand thats way too impractical to install a breathalyzer on the photobooth.

  2. muerte says:

    You should do a photo booth like this one.

  3. buz says:

    Even simple-er... Just have it constantly take pix every 3-5 seconds triggered by the webcam motion detector, then upload them all. My freebee webcam software does just that.

    And have it print out t-shirt iron-on transfers!!

  4. allartburns says:

    You probably want everything behind polycarb, something like MR10 that's pretty mar resistant.

  5. evan says:

    I know you have Bad Computer Luck, but there are cams that speak HTTP so it doesn't matter what OS you use. You could hook up the light to just turn on when there's weight on the seat.

  6. chanson says:

    On Mac OS X, Image Capture includes a "Take Picture" action for Automator. I think it's also supported via AppleScript. It works with a subset of cameras. I think there's a list on Apple's web site, or a Mac user may have put one together so people doing this kind of thing know what to get.

    Of course, whether you dedicate a Mac to the task depends on how much your nausea is worth.

    • jwz says:

      I'd love to be using Macs, but they're too fragile and expensive to be in a hot room with fog machines and constant vibration. The diskless Linux boxes we use for kiosks cost about $150 each.

      • bitjuggler says:

        do you mind sharing what diskless linux boxes you use that will stand up to such a nasty environment?

        • jwz says:

          Well, that's kind of the point: they don't need to stand up very well, because they're incredibly cheap. Right now we're using mostly MSI 6390 mobos with Athlon 1200 CPUs, 256MB RAM, and 150W power supplies; the cases are "whatever we could get", with an extra hole and an extra fan bolted on the side. They netboot and run diskless, and we use onboard video. They are far from indestructible, but they make up for it with "cheap and easy". If every component dies at once (which they don't), that's still only like a hundred fifty bucks.

  7. benc says:

    To expand further on evan's suggestion - Axis make some excellent (and cheap-ish) networked cameras, so you'd just need to worry about pulling the images over http. They even work reasonably well in low light - certainly better than any direct-attached webcam I've seen.

    You've still got the hassle of the lighting, of course, but SNMP operated power relays aren't hugely expensive (APC make some 8 port ones that are clearly overkill in this case, but they're about £300 ($500ish).

    You could quite easily avoid having to interact with any hardware directly.

    • netik says:

      Phbbft. snmp relays.

      Two transistors, a resistor, one diode and one relay to run the light from the parallel port. <$10 in parts.

    • pedxing says:

      Or just turn on the lights if someone is in the booth.

      It's okay if it's bright longer than necessary.

  8. weev says:

    It's only a matter of time until someone has sex in that photobooth

    • relaxing says:

      It has to happen, William Gibson already predicted it in All Tomorrow's Parties.

      Our grim meathook future of people having sex live for a mass audience.

  9. netik says:

    I have a couple of hardware engineers who work at apple who want to help with this, and you know that all of us would do all the labor just to make it happen.

    Let's do it!

    • baconmonkey says:

      The starting point is obviously Webcam, bulb, and computer.
      Building the booth is pretty basic labor, with a little bit of engineering to toughen it against drunk damage and vandalism.

      Most of the real work is writing the capture app, and a secure transfer mechanism to the DNA site.
      Which could be managed by putting a web server on the box itself, which a office computer behind the firewall preiodically querries and pulls the images from it, rather than it pushing images to the office network. The need for a hard drive could be removed by putting a 128 or 256 meg USB thumbdrive on it for image storage.

      • jwz says:

        The kiosks have writable NFS space on the server they boot from; office net would just rsync from the file server, and push to the external site. The software side of this is really trivial, it's everything involving cables that I'm dreading.

        Those Axis cameras sound pretty good, but they're pricey; looks like the low-end one, the Axis 206, goes for about $250.

        • niczar says:

          Bought a couple for a client for ~ €130 from a wholeseller. In my opinion they're well worth the price.

          And as far Linux support is concerned for USB webcams, the situation is quite good. It takes some googleing around to find the driver but most seem to be pretty well supported, including the low end ones. It's hard to know in advance how a particular model will work, esp. since manufacturers tend to switch chipsets without changing the name.

        • baconmonkey says:

          $130 Securicam Network 2.4GHz Wireless Internet Camera

          But what's the point of wireless camera?
          you still need a display for previewing the image prior to taking it, as well as displaying directions. It seems like a painful misuse of tech to spend a bunch of money on a wireless camera and then have a mirror and relay in the box itself.

          I think really the thing to do is borrow somebody's cheapy webcam (or just drop the $30-50 and buy one) and start doing tests with a refridgerator box, table lamp, and camera. If it turns out that the cheapie ones work out acceptably, that's even better.
          I think they will work fine. Even a 60 watt bulb at close range in a moderately bright booth would put out a lot of light. Though I think 2 lower wattage bulbs would have much better results, but that's for later experimanting.

          So I guess the real hold up here is getting ahold of a USB webcam and seeing if it can take acceptable pictures?

          Logitech quickcams seem to be pretty well supported.

      • fantasygoat says:

        For proper retro cred, you should pick up an old non-functioning photobooth at an amusement auction, probably for $25-$50 judging by the prices we pay here. Then gut it.

    • jwz says:

      The thing you could do to make this most likely to happen is to research either:

      • the cheapest reliable networked camera from which we can pull decent-quality JPEGs with minimal fuss; or:
      • a non-networked USB camera known to work well with RH9 (the kiosks are still on RH9, and that won't be changing any time soon).

      I expect any information I google up about this to be full of lies.

      • quotation says:

        I've done this in the past without the physical hardening, but with RH9.

        I would recommend considering a hardened video surveillance camera, plugged in to s Hauppauge card like -- I used a older model, no longer sold, as older stuff tends to have better Linux driver source. V4L came with scripts and cmdline tools to do the capturing and transferring -- including text overlay. Each picture could get your URL and a timestamp.

        Hell, you could even use the RS232 output from to print a breath alcohol level on each photo.

        You should also hook up a digital signature pad for photographees to sign to affirm the accuracy of the 18 U.S.C. Section 2257 records form they filled out on the kiosk.

        • netik says:

          I work in the industry -- Large portions of USC2257 were struck down for secondary producers of images. The original intent of 2257 was to stop child pornography, and I don't think it applies here.

          I'm no lawyer, but since DNA would be distributing the images and not capturing them (the user must initiate a capture themselves), I'd assume that this would make them a secondary producer of information with no liability vis a vis 2257.

          A disclaimer on the booth wouldn't hurt, I guess.

        • baconmonkey says:

          anyone in the club has been carded and is over 21 anyways.

  10. ciphergoth says:

    I didn't find making a webcam work with Linux to be too eye-gougingly unpleasant an experience, FWIW. That was many years ago, so things might have got even better, or they might have got worse.

    Actually I suspect the hard thing is turning off and on the light. But maybe there's an easy way I don't know about.

  11. ciphergoth says:


    * Leave the light on all the time
    * Take a picture every 5-10 seconds
    * Display the last four pictures
    * The button says "publish". When the button is pressed, the pictures on display are published. Add a "confirm" button if need be.

    * Record all the pictures, including the unpublished ones, so you can catch the asswipes who try to vandalize it.

    • jwz says:

      Leaving the light on all the time is no good, because nightclubs are supposed to be dark.

      We had a rental photo booth in here a couple times for some party or another, and their lights stayed on all the time and it was really annoying.

  12. d1663m says:

    I set mine up under Debian without too much fuss. The kernel also has built-in support for several types. Mine was an Intel based on the SPCA5xx chipset. Not included with most kernels but easy enough to add.

    Some decent links here:

    Out of the 6 drivers included in with my kernel version, the OV511 (OmniVision) had most camera types associated with it.
    OV511 -

    The spca chipsets also have lots of cameras built around them. There was some kernel compiling. Mainly adding V4L and USB multimedia support. Then driver module compiling. It was easy enough. When I did hit a snag, the driver developer was quick to respond to my questions. Overall it was nothing seriously serious and it worked with minimal hand-wringing and dead-chicken-waving.
    SPCA5xx -

    Probably picking up one based on the OV or SPCA chipsets listed at the links above would be a very good bet. They both seem pretty popular. If *I* can do it, I know you won't have to kill too many interns to get it working.

  13. hatter says:

    Buy a webcam, if it doesn't work, spend $10 on another one. Keep going, it's cheaper than your time to do days of research. Most of them work, and once you plug it in and it actually confesses which generic chipset it uses, 5 seconds with google will tell you whether it's a winner, or a door prize.

    the hatter

  14. d1663m says:

    1. booze
    2. chee-zee photobooth
    3. Free Porn
    4. Profit?

  15. erorus says:

    I've found that making a sdtv card and an hdtv card play nicely in mythtv is easier than using a webcam in linux (specifically, FC4). Maybe I just have a mental block or can't google properly, but I feel like any app that wants to talk to a USB webcam, and any drivers for USB webcams, are stuck with mid-1990s technology. It's horrid.

  16. Heh, you could be a complete masochist and build a cool matrix photo-booth out of chewing gum and hair pins like we did at the place where I used to work. Nothing like writing your own drivers for serial digi-cams. (Admittedly, I didn't do that part <lj user="sui66iy"> did.)

  17. the photoboof guy would probably be perfectly happy to talk with you about how he did it.

    • jwz says:

      Sure, but I get the impression that that one involves A) a film camera and B) taking the film to Walgreen's the next day and getting a PhotoCD.

  18. joel says:
    1. I found that the Boobies to Asscrack|Wang ratio sucks.
    2. It looks like they changed the focus and backdrop, seems that there was less "interesting" behavior when the camera was focused for close up portraits.
    3. I didn't like the shiny backdrop. I'm not too excited about the curtain. A flat surface painted a matte black would probably be best considering the hostile environment.
  19. darkengobot says:

    Most Webcams, being crappy, need a lot of light, so 100watt bulb probably wouldn't cut it. A couple of PAR150 floodlamps, set at angles, would give more than enough light. And as a side effect, would probably encourage people to not spend a lot of time in the booth doing bad things, as evil is repulsed by bright light.

    Or they'll coat the bulbs in spraypaint/gum/pure evil.

    If you don't put a curtain on the booth, that too will discourage the timid from doing bad things in the dark, and as a side effect the ambient light might make the photo interesting.

    (The average person looks better when they're looking slightly up, rather than dead-on. So put the camera and screen in a position to force this action. That's not a technical suggestion, but worth mentioning. You don't want lots of pictures of ugly people.)

  20. legolas says:

    Looking at the 2 sites, 4 picture strips seem like a good idea since it will encourage people to do something more creative, make a mini-film of sorts, instead fo just take a picture of their face.

  21. ioerror says:

    I'd be interested to see what 2257 issues you might have.

  22. john_x says:

    Take this however you will:
    I just fished my old Creative Labs Webcam Plus (Model number: CT6840) out of the closet. I plugged it in to my Ubuntu 5.10 machine. The little LED light came on and I started VLC, clicked on the video4linux tab, changed the device name from /dev/video to /dev/video1 (I have a TV card taking up the first device entry), and tada up pops an unfocused pic of my ugly mug. After focusing it properly I can tell you 3 things:
    1) This cam is sloooow.
    2) It works under modern Linux distros "out of the box."
    3) Either it takes ugly pics -or- the lighting in this room is very unflattering -or- I'm just that ugly.

    And it's not like I had the machine all set up to auto-detect the cam. This is the first time I've plugged a webcam into this Linux install.

    All usb webcams that work under Linux, work through the video4linux interface, which is the standard for any type of device piping video into a linux system. As a result, even programs not intended to work with webcams will work fine. I just tried xawtv and mplayer, and they were happy to show ugly, slow, jerky, video with no extra configuration.

    Good luck!

  23. ladyada says:

    oh without question you should get a fotron2000
    the photos are really fabulous.

  24. imnewtryme says:

    I tagged it with boobs a while ago.
    something about crazy drunk people in a photo booth that i find hilarious.