The thinking behind, and the design features of the Helium Core

The Helium Core was born out of my desire to make the iPhone a better photography and filmmaking tool. I spent over 2 years researching and thinking about what it needed to be and do before beginning the industrial design phase, and I continually reviewed and refined my expectations for the product throughout that time. The overarching requirement was that it needed to be “professional”, which is admittedly, a very nebulous phrase. Having worked on sets ranging from a major motion picture to commercials and product photography for Fortune 500 companies, I’d developed a strong definition of what that word meant in a production environment, and the list below distills the core tenets of what I believe a “professional” iPhone camera rig should support.

  • It is reliable
  • It minimizes setup time
  • It is precise
  • It has good ergonomics
  • Its design is simple
  • It is durable
  • It is versatile and customizable

Every single element in the Helium Core, from the materials, to its physical envelope, to the way it encapsulates the iPhone, to its cutouts and screw mounts, was chosen to support that vision for the product. 


RELIABILITY

When imagining the Helium Core, I talked to a lot of friends in different industries, ranging from film production to metal fabrication to photography to specialty coffee to construction, to understand what their take on a professional grade product was, and the thing they all cited as a must-have from their equipment was reliability. All the bells and whistles on a machine wouldn’t mean anything if it didn’t always work. With that goal in mind, we kept the design of the Helium Core as simple as possible. Less parts = less chances of something failing, so the Helium Core is made up of only 2 major parts - the lower chassis basket, and a top plate. Machining the product from a block of solid 6061-T6 aluminum significantly diminishes the chance of the 1/4”-20 screw holes failing, while the fully encapsulated design means that the iPhone has no chance of slipping out unless subjected to a very severe force.

The open back design of the Helium Core also contributes to the reliability of the iPhone filming rig. When shooting 4K at high bit rates, the iPhone’s electronics are continually being taxed, generating heat. To help ensure that the heat doesn’t disrupt the capture of footage, we decided to keep the back of the Helium Core open, so that there wouldn’t be any heat build-up in the rig. We could have saved money in the manufacturing process by leaving the back closed, but it would have been detrimental to the performance of the iPhone video rig in challenging thermal environments.


Helium Core 2 piece iPhone video rig

MINIMAL SETUP TIME

One of the trickiest challenges with the design of the Helium Core was minimizing the setup time of the iPhone camera mount, as there were two requirements it had to fulfill. It had to:

  • Be quick and easy to insert and secure the iPhone in the rig
  • Align the iPhone camera with the lens mount automatically 

Walt, our designer, did an incredible job of meeting both requirements. All you have to do to set your iPhone rig up is insert your phone, put the top plate on, and secure the top plate with the included thumbscrews or socket cap screws. The phone is encapsulated securely and the 37mm lens mount and camera are aligned properly without requiring any secondary actions.


PRECISION

Precision manifests itself in multiple ways in the design of the Helium Core. Two that we believe to be really important are:

  1. The lens mount
  2. The position of the tripod mount

The bottom part of the Helium Core was designed to automatically align the camera and the lens mount so that they’re concentric when you place your iPhone in it. No guesswork or eyeballing or worrying about whether the alignment will shift with use. You just have to set it and leave it. When you own quality glass like the Moondog Labs anamorphic adapter or the Exolens Prime with optics by Zeiss, you want to maximize the optical performance of these amazing lenses, and our design helps to ensure that.

Moondog Labs case - Helium Core automatically aligns lens

For filmmakers, it was important that we ensure that any panning movement would result in the camera tracing an arc while pivoting around the center of the camera. This was simple to achieve with our dedicated design, since we knew that the position of the camera and tripod mount would always remain constant. Most other iPhone camera grips place the tripod mount away from the center of the lens axis, causing a translational movement. The picture below shows the proper pan movement on the Helium Core.



ERGONOMICS

One of the biggest challenges I found with using the iPhone as a camera was the fact that its slim form factor and slick surfaces made it challenging to use for an extended period of time. For people with a phone size that didn’t correspond to their hand size (large hands with small phones and vice versa :) ), that problem is exacerbated. Improved ergonomics would not only make the iPhone more comfortable to use, it would also contribute to its stability when used handheld. The photo below shows the contoured surface of the Helium Core, which was a design feature that helps assures a better and more comfortable grip.

Helium Core machined iPhone photo case

The picture below, courtesy of Walt B, one of our Kickstarter backers, shows that you can take the ergonomics up another notch with the addition of a wooden hand grip. The multiple 1/4”-20 screws all along the periphery of the Helium Core provide the option for further improvements in ergonomics and usability, by allowing the use of a neck or hand strap, a handle or a gimbal.

Helium Core iPhone filmmaking rig custom setup

Lens strap can be used on Helium Core iPhone photo rig


SIMPLICITY OF DESIGN

When we set out to design the Helium Core, it was important for us to achieve simplicity, and we used that goal as a guiding beacon. The journey towards that goal started long before firing up the CAD software, and we had to answer many challenging questions along the way. The first one was whether to design a “phone-specific” or “universal” solution. Certainly, a universal design would allow us to create a product that has much broader market appeal, as well as, to some extent, “future proof” the product. The challenge with a universal design is that by its very nature, it expands the footprint of the product in order to accommodate a variety of smartphone sizes. This was antithetical to our belief that the product should be as compact and svelte as possible. It also meant that achieving a precise lens mount-camera alignment became more difficult. We knew it was possible, but it complicated both the design as well as the manufacturing of the product, and in the end, we opted for simplicity.

Another major design decision we obsessed over was how to mount the iPhone’s body in the rig. There are many mechanisms for doing so, from friction fit to clamping jaws to clips to a strap system. Ultimately, we felt that completely encapsulating the iPhone would provide the triple benefits of:

  1. Keeping things simple
  2. Ensuring the iPhone is always held securely in place
  3. Keeping the position of the phone in the rig consistent. This enabled us to ensure precise alignment of the lens and camera. 

Because of the minimum thickness necessary to ensure that a 1/4”-20 screw would be properly engaged (a rule of thumb is the depth of the screw should equal its diameter), access to the switches and buttons on the Helium Core became a challenge. We toyed with the idea of using a secondary mechanism to engage the switches and buttons, but again, it would have complicated the design and manufacture of the product. In the end, we decided on cutouts for the switches, jacks, ports and speaker. While we were at it, we added more cutouts to decrease weight and give the Helium Core a more refined appearance.

DURABILITY

The Helium Core is made of 6061-T6 aluminum, which is what airplanes are made of. We believe that if the material can handle the stresses of flight, it will be able to hold up in this use case (no pun intended!)

Machined surfaces of Helium Core iPhone filmmaking rig


VERSATILITY AND CUSTOMIZABILITY

One of the things that was critical to me during the 2-year gestation period of the Helium Core was ensuring that it would be versatile and completely customizable. I envisioned a product that was flexible and adaptable to almost any use. Whether you use the chassis as an iPhone photo case that you strap around your neck, fly it on a gimbal, shoot vertical video for Snapchat, mount a depth of field adapter with SLR glass, put it on a motion control device for time lapses or mount it on the wing of a small aircraft for aerials, the Helium Core should support your ambitions with minimal fuss. That meant designing with the goal of supporting widely accepted standards. The product works with any existing iPhone filming accessories and iPhone video equipment that use industry standard mounting mechanisms such as 1/4”-20 screw mounts or cold shoes. It’s flexible enough to support the addition of a screen shade, a filter holder, a secondary monitor, an ancillary battery holder, flags, or even a mattebox. Its relatively small size, multiple 1/4”-20 screw holes (they’re on all 4 sides of the chassis) and the strength of the materials it’s constructed with mean that all those things are possible.

In addition to their creative style, we know that everyone who cares about the craft of creating visual content has a unique signature that’s represented by their camera setup, and we believe that we’ve produced a product that enables all of you to manifest your individuality.

A couple of our Kickstarter backers' setups.
Helium Core iPhone rig custom setup