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I See You

Want to protect your home? Or just be Big Brother? Low-cost surveillance cameras and easy-to-use webcams make it possible.

When I bought a new house last summer, one of the first pieces of technology that I wanted installed was a video camera pointing at the front door. Not just any video camera, mind you: I wanted a genuine surveillance camera to record the comings and goings of both authorized and unauthorized visitors to my house.

Why? The desire stemmed partly, I suppose, from experiences at my previous residence, a second-and-third-floor walkup in West Cambridge, MA. When its front door rang, I was invariably in my office on the third floor. I went to the trouble of installing a buzzer on the front door, only to discover that it made me nervous to let people in without looking them in the face. So the buzzer went unused, and I invariably ended up descending two flights of stairs to see who was there.

My family’s new house is a three-story single family in a quiet Boston suburb. There’s really no crime problem here, but like many homeowners, I saw in my new home an opportunity to correct every problem with my old one. So when we had electrical work done, I asked my electrician to run a video cable from the porch to the basement and a companion cable from the basement to my bedroom on the third floor.

Installing an outdoor video camera poses a unique set of hurdles. The first is water. Although any video camera can be protected from rain in a watertight enclosure, you’re better off buying a weatherproof camera and putting it under an awning. A second problem is illumination. Prolonged exposure to direct sunlight can damage cameras designed for indoor use. For night time use, meanwhile, you’ll want a camera that’s sensitive to low-light or infrared light. You’ll also want an infrared illumination source.

Sound complicated? It’s not. The camera that I installed is a $200 weatherproof unit I bought over the Web from SmartHome. The size of an Idaho potato, it’s a color camera during the day, an infrared camera at night, and even sports a ring of infrared LEDs to illuminate the nighttime scene.
 
Although I could have installed a 2.4 gigahertz wireless camera that transmits to a computer or a television set, I opted for a video cable instead. Not only did I want to avoid interference with my wireless home network, I also didn’t want other people in my neighborhood to be able to pick up my video stream. And since I was already running an electrical line to the camera, the second line wasn’t much more work.

I ran the video cable to a tiny 3-inch LCD monitor I picked up at the same time. Alas, once everything was set up, I was somewhat disappointed. In this house, unlike my previous one, I spend most of my time on the first floor-with easy access to the front door. I had the perfect solution-for a house I no longer lived in. It turns out that what I wanted at my new house is a way of looking at the video when I’m not there. I want a video camera that’s on the ‘Net.

Setting up a Web camera just a few years ago was quite a challenge. These days you can by a network camera that’s completely pre-assembled: just plug in the power supply and the network connection.

Panasonic sells an amazing little all-in-one Web camera called the KX-HCM10. Priced around $480, the camera mounts on a wall and includes a built-in Web server. Click to its Web page and you can see what the camera sees, either a regularly refreshed JPEG image (like the early days of webcams) or full-motion video feed. Using the camera’s built-in Web server, you can select a variety of resolutions. You can change the image quality, image size, and brightness. Best of all, you can move the camera up, down, left, and right. You can also attach a security sensor to the device in order to have the camera automatically take a photo when a door is opened or a motion detector is tripped, then have the photo sent by e-mail to a destination of your choice. The whole thing is a remarkable little feat of engineering, in a package roughly the size of five pieces of Wonder Bread with a tangerine on top.

Configuration involves plugging the camera into your network and then running an associated Windows-based configuration program. This program finds the camera on your local area network and lets you either assign an IP address or configure the camera to get an address using the Internet Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol (DHCP). You can also set up password-access and how much bandwidth the camera is allowed to consume-0.1, 0.2, 0.3, 0.5, 1.0, or unlimited megabits per second.

Security is pretty simple as well: you need to be on the same local area network to configure the camera, and you can only configure it within 20 minutes after turning it on. The configuration program also allows you to enable Dynamic DNS and to purchase “a personal link” for the camera. That sounds like it might be useful for people who don’t own their own name servers.

The camera isn’t weatherproof in the least, so you’ll need to put it in a special enclosure if you want to use it outdoors. On the other hand, it does come with two mounting brackets, an adjustable bracket made out of metal, and a molded plastic bracket designed for hanging the unit directly on a wall. So instead of putting the camera outside your front door looking in, I put the camera inside my front door, looking out through the glass. A weatherproof version should be available in June for $750.

If you don’t need pan-and-zoom, you might want to take a look at the Axis 2100, a sweet little all-in-one affair that a variety of online merchants sell for less than $300.

Setting up the Axis camera was an adventure. Before I could open a Web browser to the camera, I had to find the camera’s hardware address, then type an “arp” command to assign it an IP address. Apart from that voodoo, however, things are pretty straightforward: there’s even a “wizard” that steps you through the configuration, including the all-important password setting so that other people can’t take over your camera.

Like the Panasonic camera, the Axis has screw terminals to support an optional alarm switch. You can program the camera to upload pictures continuously or whenever the alarm is triggered. You can also connect the Axis camera directly to a modem. The camera can dial up an ISP, transmit a username and password, and then stream photos over the dial-up connection.

The disadvantage of the Axis 2100 is that the camera itself is quite cheap. For example, it can’t take direct sunlight. There’s no remote focus and no pan-and-zoom. On the other hand, it largely works as advertised and it’s easy to set up.

Axis also sells a number of stand-alone video servers that let you turn any off-the-shelf video camera into a webcam. For example, the Axis 2400 takes in four video streams and typically sells for $1200; the 2401 takes two video streams and costs around $700.

Finally, you can turn any of those $50 USB cameras into a webcam using Personal Webcasting from iVista software. Priced at $50, the software includes a built-in Web server, the ability to serve video or audio streams, and a neat feature that lets you serve video from your computer’s desktop as well. That makes this system good for remote tech support and training. Although you can replicate some of these features with Microsoft’s NetMeeting software, iVista is easier to use and works with an ordinary Web browser on the other end. I tried it and thought it was pretty cool.

Ironically, now that I’ve got my camera, I’ve come to the realization that I’m much more interested in looking at things than people. For example, I can look at the front door and see if a package has been left there. A few years ago in Cambridge, Airborne Express left a $3,000 computer on my doorstep while I was out of town for a 3-day long weekend. Fortunately, it was there when I returned, but if I had this camera then, I could have seen the package and asked a friend to pick it up.

One issue that I’ve stayed clear of in this article is the impact of video surveillance on privacy. But in avoiding that issue, I’m not much more different than society at large. Although many people don’t like being photographed by some faceless surveillance force at a mall or in a government building, they think nothing of turning the tables with cameras of their own.

I’m just the same way.

Check out a screen shot from the Panasonic camera at http://www.simson.net/panasonic.jpg. Next month I’ll be writing about Bluetooth. Got a good Bluetooth story? Drop me a note!

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