Reels on wheels: French rally biker Gilles Planson rides with a GoPro Hero

They're capable of recording your every move. Will Coldwell gets a high-def heads-up.

One sunny day in California, way back in 1987, a young film-maker called Mark Schulze taped a camera to his motorcycle helmet, wired it up to a microphone, got on his bike and pressed "record". Two decades later and thousands of people around the world are making films using high-definition cameras to depict their adventures exactly as they see them.

But unlike Schulze's original contraption, a DIY affair that was crude, bulky and heavy, helmet cameras are now mass-produced by global brands such as GoPro, Contour and Drift. Consequently, clipping a camera to yourself and filming has become surprisingly straightforward.

Unfortunately for Schulze, he's not the one cashing in on its success. "I didn't patent the combination," he says, "I was young and I just used this invention for the videos I was creating; the first mountain-biking videos. I really didn't think about the future applications and possibilities of something like this."

Unsurprisingly for a pastime that has always attracted big egos, the cameras have been taken up by the extreme-sports community with the gusto normally reserved for a 7m half-pipe – YouTube is now flooded with clips showing footage from seemingly impossible perspectives.

Without being paid for by the manufacturers, the clips act as advertisements in themselves, the videos inspire people to take their stunts further, explore new angles and, probably most significantly, purchase one.

GoPro, the body-mounted camera market leader, is estimated to have sold 800,000 units in 2011,making it around $250m (£158m). West London-based Action Camera – one of Europe's leading retailers in specialist sport cameras – saw growth of around 30 per cent last year.

"Before it was more like CCTV systems, so you would need a remote pack with the camera but as soon as they went HD everyone wanted them," explains Matt Taylor, marketing manager for Action Camera.

Patrick Rynne, studying for a PhD in Applied Marine Physics at Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, is using GoPro cameras to shoot his extreme sports and wildlife project; Waterlust. Working with a bigger camera, he explains, would be a "disaster".

"It certainly has changed the extreme-sports experience. You're no longer the lone hunter going out, killing the bear and not having anybody to tell about it. Now you can ride alone, do something rad, and share it with all your buddies online."

The ease at which cameras like the GoPro allow the user to shoot, edit and upload has also been utilised by Jump4Heros, the Royal British Legion Extreme Human Flight Team. They perform base jumps and skydives to raise money for charities supporting the armed forces.

"Being able to strap a few cameras on really changes how we can go about our business," explains Major Alastair Macartney, who has done more than 6,500 skydives. "We're now able to get into every household showing the extremes that we go to."

Since the cameras shoot constantly as you go, the unpredictability of the end footage is another intriguing aspect of this type of filming. One YouTube video shot with a GoPro, seen 13 million times, shows the moment cyclist Evan van der Spuy collides with a galloping antelope in South Africa.

Even Schulze can recall similar experiences when he was experimenting with his original helmet cam: "One time I saw a rattlesnake right in the middle of the trail and I had to jump my bike over the top so as not to hurt the snake. Little things like that were kind of neat. It was nice to be able to show what it was like afterwards."

Patrick Rynne explains how shooting in this way means that all the work is in the planning: "Shooting with a regular camera is like hunting with a gun, whereas shooting with a GoPro is like hunting with a snare. You have to 'trap' your shots. You need to think about where to put the camera, how to mount it and try to anticipate what things will look like before they happen."

His team demonstrated this to excess when they strapped a camera to the dorsal fin of a tiger shark.

But it's not just adrenalin junkies who are using these cameras. Increasingly they have been reaching a wider audience – most notably urban cyclists. Although they are unlikely to encounter antelopes, rattlesnakes or sharks on their daily commute, some would argue they face rather more dangerous threats in the form of bad drivers.

Gareth Williams, better known as Gaz, runs, a blog dedicated to highlighting mistakes cyclists can make on the road, as well as poor driving. He is part of a small but growing community of around 300 cyclists in the UK who regularly upload and blog about videos they have made using helmet cameras.

Using a Countour Roam camera, Williams began filming in 2009 after having an accident on the road that resulted in a drawn-out battle with his insurers: "With the helmet cam there's no debate – they just pay up".

But, as Williams explains, it's not just about capturing calamitous crashes: "Sometimes we put up a video to show a really nice ride. Like a journey where it's green lights all the way."

Meanwhile, Schulze is content to know that his idea has spread, while the motivation driving people to make such films remains unchanged: "The point of view aspect is what it was all about then and it's what it's all about now – people just want to show off what they do."