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Industrial-Strength Wireless Webcam

by Derrick Story
11/02/2001

Webcams are fun -- at least for the first 10 minutes or so.

After that your viewing audience begins to suffer from dull, comatose images generated by a cheesy, single focal-length lens tethered to a host computer that's usually residing in the dusty recesses of your office. So, unless you have a window to a really great view, I doubt that you're going to win too many Emmys for your online broadcasts.

But, on the other hand, what if you could roam freely with a portable webcam outfitted with a powerful zoom lens that could follow the action as it happens? Your high-resolution images would be processed quickly and directly uploaded to a web server for immediate viewing. Now, that would be a webcam worth watching, wouldn't it?

For example, if your goal was to broadcast your daughter's birthday party so relatives across the globe could share the moment as it was happening, do you really want your webcam fixed on an empty birthday table when all the children are outside playing? Probably not.

I'm sure you've run into offers for tempting solutions such as the X10 XCam2 that promises wireless camera functionality. But in reality, the quality isn't very good, and it's designed to send images to your TV or VCR, not a web page. If you were to spend the extra bucks to transmit murky pictures to your web server, chances are you'd create a tremendous vulnerability that could allow hostile intruders access to your account. My advice is to pass on those devices.

On the other hand, if you own a laptop, and have been experimenting with 802.11b networking, you're already close to a portable, high-quality solution. With the right software, a little ingenuity, and a DV (Digital Video) camcorder, you can build a robust broadcasting system that will publish images actually worth watching.

There are a number of ways to accomplish this. In this article, I'll only discuss one method I've had success with. Take a look at how my system works, then create your own. If you come up with something really cool, be sure to post a TalkBack message.

The basic tools for my approach

I opted for a Mac-OS-X-based solution for a number of reasons. This platform provides a strong graphical interface, a Unix foundation that's accessible via the Terminal application, FireWire connectivity between the camera and laptop, 802.11b networking between laptop and base station, and terrific webcam software. I spent a total of $20 for the software, and I used equipment I already had for the hardware. Here's the parts list:

  • Mac OS X 10.1 laptop with FireWire port.
  • Canon DV camcorder with FireWire port (or any number of other compatible DV camcorders.
  • AirPort card (or other 802.11 networking card).
  • AirPort BaseStation (or other 802.11b hub).
  • CoolCam 2.0 webcam software (available for both Mac OS X and OS 9).
  • FireWire cable (at least 6 feet long) for connecting camera to laptop.

  Equipment used

The webcam setup -- Canon ZR camera (with LCD flip-screen up) atop an UltraPod II. FireWire cable connected to a PowerBook running Mac OS X 10.1. The browser window is on left side of the screen displaying current webcam image. The CoolCam application window is open on the right side of the screen.

 

If you're not working on the Mac platform, don't stop reading this article because many of the techniques I'll cover are relatively generic, and will apply in principle to your equipment configuration.

You also might be wondering about my choice of camera. Why not just use a cheapie, single focal-length webcam that connects via USB? Again, those will work, but you won't have the features you need to for creating high-quality, interesting broadcasts. Later on in the article I'll explain why I like the DV camcorder. Take a look at the features I mention, decide which ones you need, and design your system accordingly.

But before we get to the camera itself, let's take a look at the all-important software that orchestrates this entire show.

CoolCam powers your webcam

CoolCam 2.0 software is at the heart of this broadcasting system, so let's take a look at its features.

CoolCam is produced by Evological software which says the purpose of this product is to create a powerful, easy-to-configure webcam. The Mac OS X version allows you to connect a FireWire camcorder to the laptop and broadcast images via FTP to your server. I'll discuss the pros and cons of FTP transfer a little later in the article. But for quick-and-dirty setup, choosing this option gets you on your feet quickly.

CoolCam has a terrific interface that consists of a viewer window and four tabbed control boxes labeled: Server, Options, Status, and Items.

In the Server control box, you set the path to your FTP server and enter your user name and password. According to the Evological man pages, setting the correct path to FTP is the No. 1 problem for most users. That shows you how easy the software is to use. If you're behind a firewall, remember to check the "Use Passive FTP" box.

Once you establish the correct settings, CoolCam will grab an image at the specified interval and upload it to your web site directory. Viewers can see the images by going to the web page you've designed to download the pictures from the server and display them.

The Options control screen has many useful functions. In addition to setting the refresh rate for capturing each image, you can instruct CoolCam to send the image to the server, to a local directory, to an archive folder, or all three!

  Options Screen

The Options screen allows users to control screen refresh and tell CoolCam where to send the images. Here I have it set for sending images directly to my web site (via FTP), plus saving them to a local directory, and archiving them in another location.

 

There may be situations when you don't want to use FTP for uploading images, such as over a public 802.11b network. In those instances, you can turn off server upload, save the images to a local directory, and use Secure Copy (SCP) to send your webcam shots. This is where Mac OS X's Unix foundation comes in handy because you would need to set up this job in the Terminal application. I'll be discussing this more in the follow-up article on secure uploading of wireless webcam images.

I also want to mention some of the cool archiving options that are available in CoolCam. You can save each webcam image, sequentially numbered, to a local directory, or you can opt for a QuickTime movie. When you choose the movie option, CoolCam actually builds the movie for you -- using all of the captured images -- when the webcam session is closed. Very cool. By using this feature, you can offer past webcam broadcasts as easy to download QuickTime movies.

The one button that I tripped on was the Video Input control that opens another screen with all sorts of cool controls such as Hue, Saturation, Brightness, and Contrast. Unfortunately, none of these controls worked for images sent from my DV camcorder. I contacted CoolCam tech support and found out why.

This dialog box is provided by QuickTime. The QuickTime DV video digitizer software, since DV is already digital, doesn't allow adjustment of brightness, contrast, hue, saturation, etc. These controls are usually only available on capture boards that have analog front-ends.

So, the moral of the story is that you need to control the appearance of the image on the camera side when working with DV.

You can click on the Status tab when you want to keep track of details such as when the last image was uploaded, its size, and its format. You can even review the FTP transcript here.

  Status Screen

The Status screen provides you with a thumbnail of the last image uploaded, and gives you all the numbers too.

 

One minor annoyance I encounted happened whenever I clicked on the View Image button, which causes CoolCam to lauch the Mac's Classic environment in order to use the Picture Viewer application to display the image. I looked for a way to change that preference to use QuickTime 5 for Mac OS X instead, but I couldn't find out how to make the adjustment. So I pinged tech support (and they got back to me right away). Here's their explanation:

The View Image button simply tells the Finder to open the "CoolCam Image" file (in the same folder as CoolCam) using whatever application is appropriate. Your "CoolCam Image" file, especially if it was initially created on the original release of Mac OS X, might be set to open in PictureViewer. This problem appears to be fixed in version 10.1, so try deleting this file and seeing if it fixes the problem (CoolCam will create a new file on the next upload/save attempt). Also, you can change the application that opens a given file in the file's "Show Info" window. After you've done this, CoolCam will honor this setting whenever you click the View Image button.

Once again, tech support hit the nail right on the head. The key phrase is, "in the same folder as CoolCam." The file named, "CoolCam Image", is the file that you need to remap using Show Info. Once you do that, the View Image button will open your picture in the application you specify.

The last tab, Items, contains all sorts of goodies. If you want to add caption overlays to your pictures, you can set their position and parameters here. Same goes for time-stamping. If you need to censor part of the picture, you can use the "blur" function and obscure selected areas just like the networks do.

  Items Screen

In the Items screen you can set the parameters for your captioning, time-stamping, blurring, and even motion-detection.

 

And if you want to use your webcam for security purposes, you can create a motion-detection sensor that activates transmission whenever the camera detects movement.

CoolCam performance was terrific, and most of the features worked as advertised. It really feels like a Mac OS X application. You can try CoolCam free for 15 days. After that, Evological asks that you pony up USD$20 and register the software.

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