You’ve used your camcorder to tape weddings, babies, parties and special events. Having done all of those and similar things, perhaps you feel you’ve run the gamut of what your camcorder can do for you. If you feel that way, you should be aware that you haven’t even scratched the surface. Indeed, some of your camcorder’s best applications may be yet to come.
Combining your camcorder with the Internet and your computer produces a host of futuristic possibilities. Best of all, given some new and relatively inexpensive technology that future can be right now. (By the way, don’t think that this article is just about installing a Web cam. We’ll start there, then work up to using a camcorder, so that you can get full-frame up to 30 frames per second (30fps) video, with sound.)
For example, have you considered using your camcorder for video surveillance? That was my motive in looking into information that led to this article. I have a cabin about 600 miles from my home. It’s not in the wilderness, exactly, but, then again it’s not in an area that’s easily accessed. And, most of the neighbors, like myself, are seldom there, so it’s a prime target for vandalism. I wanted to set up a surveillance cam that periodically could check out the cabin and its surroundings, so I’d be able to see just what was going on.
But, perhaps surveillance is not something that you need. In that case, what about conferencing? Could you use a setup at work that allows you to clearly see and hear conferences conducted simultaneously at two or more locations around the country, or the world?
What about something as simple and as important as watching your baby or child in another room, or even at another home? Would you find it useful to see what’s happening on a real-time basis? (The idea of spying on baby-sitters came and went a few years ago, but it’s certainly a practical possibility given today’s technology.)
On the other hand, maybe you want to market a product online. Having a Web site is common fare these days. But, what about a Web site that demonstrates your product in a real-time window, live?
Maybe you’d simply like to monitor your home or office from your cell phone? Or??
As you can see, the possibilities are almost endless. Today. you can put that old camcorder to use far more and far better than you may have ever imagined. And, it’s easy to get started.
WHAT ABOUT WEB CAMS?
Let’s start with Web cams. These are inexpensive video cameras that deliver images through your computer to your screen via a USB port, and through an Internet connection to just about anywhere else in the world. Combine this with some motion-detection capabilities, and you have the beginnings of a home security/surveillance system.
Of course, you need software to make this all happen. One of the best products I found for this is the iVISTA Personal Security System from INETCAM ($99). This allows you to use your Web cam to look at a subject after you’ve been alerted through a motion detector.
The iVISTA system lets you customize the severity of the motion you’re detecting. Then a detection module allows you to set up how you want the response. For example, it will allow you to be notified by e-mail. Or, it can post the alert and the picture to your Web site. Or, with additional modules, you can broadcast both the video and the sound. You can even schedule when you want the system on (just on weekends, for example), or which camera to use (the front door; the back door, etc., which requires an additional multi-camera module).
The system is easy to set up, and if it fits your needs, can be very effective.
Of course, so far we’re just talking about Web cams that supply images over just about any kind of Internet connection from dial-up to DSL. The problem, if you’ve used these sort of Web cams–particularly with a dial-up type connection is that the pictures are fuzzy and the frame rate is painfully slow, resulting in a jerky image.
What you probably really want is what a camcorder delivers–a picture that’s clear, even at full-screen resolution. And, you want the ability to go up close in wide angle, or far out in telephoto. Finally, you may also want to be able to move the camcorder, so that it isn’t locked into a single position. After all, what if what you want to see is off to the right, or just below the reach of the lens? So, how do you do that?
A REMOTE CAMCORDER
I’ve found two companies that offer a solution here. The first is Tele-Cam from Televiewer Systems. Tele-cam allows you to plug-in your own digital camcorder at a remote location on a separate computer and use it to transmit high-quality video and audio over the Internet back to your computer.
Tele-cam uses its own codec (compression-decompression) system to transfer images. The result is that you get up to 640×480 video at a frame rate of between 23fps and 25fps (30fps is standard video, anything above 24fps is usually seen as a smooth picture).
The resolution you’ll get depends upon the speed of your Internet connection. At the minimum required speed of only 100kbps (kilobits per second, no dial-up connections allowed), you could expect to receive 320×240 video at 23fps. If your connection is over 500kbps, you could expect a faster frame rate with resolutions as high as 640×480.
Tele-cam allows you to store the signal stream to your hard drive in addition to the VCR portion of your camcorder. You can manually start and stop the Record function. (Unfortunately, you cannot preset recording times). If you want a single image, you can snap this as a bitmap (which can be converted to a TIFF or JPEG file using Adobe Photoshop or a similar program).
With Tele-cam, you can also fully control your camcorder at a remote location. This includes zooming in and out, adjusting the iris, focusing, switching to VCR mode, fast-forwarding and fast-rewinding, and so forth.
The company says you can use Tele-cam with just about any ISP provider, even those with a dynamic IP address that changes every time you boot your computer. However, the system is only available for the PC at present, not the Mac.
You can, however, allow others to watch the stream of video you’re generating. You can control the viewers through the use of a password you originate.
Tele-cam comes in two versions. The Standard ($60) allows you the basic function of watching the remote video stream of your camcorder, using your cam’s VCR mode, and includes security by providing 128-bit encryption technology.
The Professional Edition ($150) offers you full remote control over your camcorder (zooming, adjusting picture quality settings and so forth), and lets you resize the video window. It also gives you control of other features of your video such as contrast, brightness, and saturation.
There are two software parts of the system. The host generates the video and sends it to the client. For the host, you’ll need Windows 2000 or XP and a Pentium III 1GHz computer or better, plus a broadband Internet connection (DSL or cable modem). For the client, in the Standard system only, a Windows 98 operating system or higher with a Pentium III running at 500MHz is required. For the Professional system, that bumps up to Pentium 4 at 2GHz or better, and again Windows 2000 or XP. And, of course, you’d need a broadband connection.
TRACK YOUR SUBJECTS
While a camcorder gives you a lot more options than a Web cam, you’re still limited to one view, unless you’re able to tilt and pan. That’s made possible by another product, PowerPod from Eagletron for $169.99.
Perhaps you’ve heard of the first generation of this product, TrackerPod. It allowed you to put your Web cam on a remote robotic base that could tilt and pan. The problem was that camcorders were simply too heavy for the Trackerpod. The new PowerPod solves this by accommodating camcorders up to three pounds with heavy-duty motors. (It does make a slight grinding noise as it twists and turns.)
The DVdriver software that comes with the PowerPod captures video from the cain’s FireWire port (both streaming and single images). It also controls the PowerPod, a robotic base that pans and tilts, via a USB port. According to Eagletron, it fools any software that can work with a Web cam into working with a camcorder.
You can also pan, tilt and digitally zoom with any DV camcorder. Using the optical zoom is possible with any camcorder that has an IEEE1394/FireWire interface. That should include virtually all digital cams, however, the company apparently has only confirmed this with Canon ZR models. As noted, for camcorders that don’t have the FireWire output, you can only use the digital zoom.
The PowerPod comes with a small attachment that connects to the base of your camcorder and allows it to hook up with the PowerPod. Also included in the package are a USB cable, for powering and using the PowerPod, and software.
With the software, you can also set up a special Web page to view the video. Then, you can give others password access to the Web page, so they can see what you’ve captured.
Finally, you can use special tracker software to identify movement in the picture and track it automatically. This is something you’ll definitely want, if your main purpose in setting up the installation is surveillance.
By the way, another new product from Eagletron allows you to remotely control and view your Web cam from Internet-enabled cell phones, TrackerCam Software Version 5.1. TrackerCam 5.1 offers a Get Online button that enables yon to choose the image size and type, as well as the pan/tilt/zoom functions, you want cell phones to perform. The software is free.
While I’ve presented this as a kind of panacea for remotely accessing and controlling your camcorder, you should be aware that there are limitations and possible pitfalls. For example, you must have a camcorder, or be prepared to buy one. And, you’ll also need a computer and a broadband connection at two locations. This can be fairly costly,
In addition, you are at the mercy of your Internet service provider. For example, as noted at the beginning, my purpose was to connect visually at a remote cabin I have. Remarkably, there’s DSL available in the area. However, at my cabin’s location, the DSL line seems to be down more than it’s up, due to problems with the provider. Whenever it’s down, my surveillance is also down. (I have a cable modem at my regular home that’s much more reliable.)
Also, power outages can easily take out the system. And, any possible burglar can simply cover up the camera and mic, thus eliminating the surveillance, although this, in itself, can be an alert.
Finally, you or someone must monitor the system, unless you pay for a security company, and you’re likely to often be unavailable.
Remote control of your camcorder for surveillance, security, safety, conferencing or just about any other purpose is not expensive. It works (most of the time). And, it might just revolutionize the way you use your camcorder.