Steve's Big Webcam Adventure

SAN FRANCISCO (08/28/2000) - Where was Marlin Perkins and his Wild Kingdom TV show when I needed him? Here I was with a scrub jay pecking at my head while I scrambled through my backyard flora, trying to attach a camera to a pole.

See, my wife had discovered the bird's nest and its four eggs in our camellia bush, and I was setting up a Webcam. (No chuckling, please. Bringing technology to nature is tough work.) Actually, the nest was a great excuse to buy a camera that can do all sorts of gee-whiz stuff--for business (videoconferencing, home-brewed security) and for fun (use your imagination).

First, the fun stuff. I decided to capture the action in the bird's nest using X10's ScanCam, a wireless color camera. The ScanCam is about the size of a golf ball, but it includes a lens with variable focus, a microphone, and a built-in transmitter. It's powered by an AC adapter (an optional battery pack costs about $20, but its charge lasts only 4 hours).

I set up the camera over the nest and tested the transmitter. I was able to beam a 2.4-GHz signal through a window and three walls into my office--about 80 feet. The receiver, which looks like a small answering machine, sat on my desk near the PC. I then connected the receiver to the input port on my PC's ATI video card. (Alternatively, you can use X10's optional $70 video-to-USB converter cable to make the connection.) In less than 10 minutes, I successfully installed the camera's drivers and had a picture of the jay sitting on its nest. The receiver has a traditional coaxial cable connector to split the signal and put the picture on my television if I want.

For those who don't want to bother with wireless technology, there's Logitech Corp.'s QuickCam Web (about $80). It connects to your PC via the USB port and produces a decent image. And for storing your images, the Spotlife.com service offers 15MB of free online space; it also provides 4 hours of live streaming per month for up to 25 simultaneous viewers.

For a review of two somewhat pricier Webcams, check out "Web Cameras That Offer More" (New Products, April, www.pcworld.com/apr2000/webcams).

On The Software Side

If you want to convert a standard video camera into a Webcam, you'll need software. I looked at lots of commercial Webcam software packages and was surprised to find that X10's freeware does a comparatively good job. It permits you to view images on screen, store them to disk, or send them to your Web site.

Webcam32, a $25 Webcam shareware program, let me broadcast the jay's nest live over the Internet with a high-speed DSL line. With a slower connection, I could take snapshots at fixed intervals and upload them via FTP to my Web site.

(Webcam32 also supports AVI capture, image captions, sound broadcasting, and live chat.) Check out my AVIs of the jay's nest at www.pibmug.org/jaycam.html or on FileWorld.

Do-It-Yourself Security

When i'm not home I use Gotcha, a $70 video surveillance program that records detected motion to a time-stamped video file. I can change the level of detection sensitivity and mask areas of the image I want Gotcha to ignore, such as traffic viewed through a window. Gotcha can also page, phone, or e-mail me when motion is detected, record as many gigabytes of full motion video as my PC can hold (or transmit it live), or bark like a dog. And then there's Gotcha's spousal-alert feature: Any time I play solitaire, I aim the camera at the doorway. Whenever my wife walks in, Gotcha's Lookout mode minimizes the on-screen application. (You can also use X10's ScanCam as a rudimentary security system in your home or office when you're away by sending images to yourself via e-mail at regular intervals or whenever the ScanCam detects motion.)Now I can only hope word of my success with the scrub jays will reach the good folks at Mutual of Omaha.

The nest was a great excuse to buy a camera that can do all sorts of gee-whiz stuff.

Gotcha $70; Prescient Systems, www.gotchanow.comQuickCam Web $80 street; Logitech, 888/863-8312, www.logitech.comScanCam camera $99, video-to-USB cable $70; X10 Wireless Technology, 800/675-3044, www.x10.comWebcam32 $25; Surveyor Corp., 805/784-9000, www.surveyor.comFind the files mentioned here at www.fileworld.com. Contributing Editor Steve Bass is president of the Pasadena IBM Users Group. Write him at steve_bass@pcworld.com.

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