Axis webcam simplifies remote baby monitoring

Say you are a new parent whose relatives live far, far away. What if you could easily allow family to see your child doing basic things babies do without jumping on a plane? After all, grandmothers can never see enough of their grandchildren. Imagine how many cool points you would get if your mother-in-law in Chicago could watch your son sleeping (or sleepless) in Seattle. This post is a walkthrough of how I setup a webcam over Owen’s crib that can be viewed using any popular Web browser from anywhere on the Internet.

Let’s begin with the end in mind. Below is an image showing the final result. This is an actual screenshot from the webcam exactly as it was delivered to my browser. I think Owen knows when he is being watched. 🙂

owen-cam 

Assumptions

The required equipment turns out to be quite simple if we make the following assumptions about your home network.

  • You have a high-speed broadband connection (>1 Mbps up). This is true for most cable modem connections. Otherwise, call your ISP and request an upgrade.
  • You have a wired or wireless router/modem that allows you to connect several computers to the Internet. Otherwise, get the equipment from your ISP or visit Best Buy and tell them you want a wireless router.

Equipment

With the assumptions out of the way, the complete equipment list is as follows:

Yes, that’s it. No fancy computer or other electronics. No crazy HDMI, DVI, SCSI, IEEE-1394 or other expensive cables.

Before celebrating, you should know this is not your average Instant Messaging, MySpace or eHarmony webcam. This is a commercial-grade network camera often used by businesses and municipalities for asset monitoring and security. That means you get turnkey functionality, high quality and unsurpassed flexibility at a higher price point. What’s the damage? The Axis 207W runs $350 on Amazon. I paid $242.25 after shipping using eBay. Both prices are at the extreme of what one would typically pay for a consumer-grade USB webcam. However, you don’t need a computer or any special software to run an Axis network camera or to allow multiple people to access the camera at the same time. A single Axis camera is is also much cheaper than the roundtrip airfare it will save you and your MIL.

NOTE: Be sure to get the 207W model which supports wireless and wired connections.

Setup

Once you follow the included instructions to get the camera connected to your network, configuration is straightforward.

  1. Connect to the camera using your browser (e.g., http://192.168.0.123)
    1. Can you see the video? If not, check your equipment and connections.
    2. The Axis IP Utility can help determine your camera’s IP address.
  2. Click the Setup link and login as admin.
  3. Under Basic Configuration –> Video & Image
    1. Create user accounts
    2. Require passwords for access (optional)
    3. Set the date & time.
    4. Select the video size and quality. I chose 480×360 with a compression level of 15.
    5. Enable the date & timestamp. This step is optional but it lets viewers know what they are seeing is real-time.
  4. Under Live View Config –> Layout
    1. Choose ‘Motion JPEG’ for the default video format
    2. Chose ‘Java applet’ for the default viewer for IE and other browsers.
  5. Under System Options –> Network –> Basic
    1. Register the camera with the AXIS Internet Dynamic DNS Service. This assigns a friendly address like www.lesia.com your visitors can use to access the webcam.

A couple notes regarding the steps above.

  • I found motion JPEG with the Java applet produces the best quality  images. This does mean your visitors will need to first install the free Java runtime to access the webcam. Make sure you have them uncheck the Yahoo/MSN Toolbar installation option.
  • Remote webcam access requires changes to your firewall to allow visitors outside your network to access the camera sitting in your home. This is beyond the scope of my walkthrough but Axis provides instructions for configuring your home router for an Axis network camera.

Conclusion

Now you have a multi-user webcam that can be moved around as your child grows and needs (NannyCam?) change. How well does it work? In a word: great. Don’t take my word for it. Check out a public Axis camera running in Kiruna, Sweden. Yes, Sweden. You can also check out a list of public Axis cameras throughout the world.

But wait, there’s more. We eliminated the computer on the webcam side, what about for your visitors?

If they own an iPhone or iPod touch they can purchase Axis Cams by EyeSpyFx from Apple’s App Store for $4.99. With that program any Axis webcam can be viewed whenever their device is connected via 3G (iPhone only) or Wi-Fi (iPhone and iPod touch). You should check out TotalControl for your Windows Mobile, Blackberry or Android device.

Axis Cams   Owen Cam - iPhone  Owen Cam - iPhone - Landscape

Leave a comment if you have questions or encounter problems.

Building a fast Windows Vista machine for video processing

About six months before embarking on my quest to build a top-of-the-line Vista Media Center from off-the-shelf parts, I researched, purchased and assembled all the components to build my home workstation. My goal was to create a moderately fast machine capable of running 64-bit Windows Vista Ultimate. The machine needed to have sufficient processing power, memory and storage for editing and rendering video—one of the most computationally intensive tasks that can bring a machine to its knees.

With the following hardware I was able to obtain a Vista Windows Experience Index (WEI) of 4.8:

  • 3 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo E8400 CPU (overclocked to 3.83 GHz)
  • 4 GB G.SKILL DDR2 800 RAM
  • EVGA NVIDIA GeForce 7600GS 512 MB Graphics Adapter
  • 320 GB Samsung HD321KJ SATA-2 7,200 RPM Hard Drive

Windows Experience Index before upgrade

The Vista WEI ranges from 1.0 to 5.9 so a score of 4.8 is respectable. Furthermore, as you can see in the image above, the processor, memory and hard drive contributed individual scores of 5.7 or greater. Since overall WEI reflects the weakest link, the 4.8 graphics adapter score pulled down my system rating. At that time, it was not a big deal. I am not much of a gamer and the graphics adapter was fast enough for standard definition video editing and periodic movie conversions. That was May 2007.

Fast-forward about 18 months to when I first learned of NVIDIA CUDA parallel computing architecture and the novel way a few software companies were using it to significantly accelerate video processing in their products. I had been using TMPGEnc 4.0 XPress by Pegasys for a few years for converting videos for portable devices, my media center and the Web. Also, Elemental Technologies was getting amazing results and stellar reviews for its Badaboom Media Converter. Both companies had incorporated CUDA into the processing pipelines of their respective products resulting in 5-10x speed improvements. The only problem: Only the GeForce 8000 series and later NVIDIA graphics adapters support CUDA. I had an older 7600 series. 🙁

A faster graphics adapter would surely increase my system’s WEI but I would also need to do something about my hard drive. The difference between 5.7 and 5.9 seems minor but for a hard drive it turns out it is fairly significant. It is particularly noticeable when it comes to reading and writing files several gigabytes in size, typical of video processing. For example, a 2 1/2 hour HD broadcast can consume over 30 GB of disk space.

After several weeks of research including reviews, benchmarks and price comparisons, I was ready to take the plunge and upgrade my hard drive and graphics adapter.

With the upgraded hardware, my system currently is as follows (only the last two items have changed):

  • 3.00 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo E8400 CPU (overclocked to 3.83 GHz)
  • 4 GB G.SKILL DDR2 800 RAM
  • ASUS NVIDIA GeForce GTX 260 896 MB Graphics Adapter
  • 300 GB Western Digital VelociRaptor SATA-2 10,000 RPM Hard Drive

Windows Experience Index after upgrade

This upgrade increased my system’s WEI from 4.8 to 5.8. As you can see in the image above, every element in my system (except the CPU) now achieves the Vista maximum of 5.9. The upgrades together set me back $510—$240 for the drive, $270 for the graphics adapter.

Was it worth it? If converting a 2-hour DVD movie for playback on your iPhone/iPod/Zune/etc. in 10-15 minutes is important to you, or you edit and render a lot of video and don’t want your machine slowing to a crawl, absolutely. Otherwise, use the $510 and buy your videos on iTunes or Amazon Unbox.

I have been running this new system configuration for a couple months now and the performance improvement is very noticeable. I figure I will be happy with my system for another 12 months or so at which point Microsoft Windows 7, Intel Core i7 processors and plunging prices of Intel X25-M SSD drives will make a new round of upgrades hard to resist.

One year, 500 miles and a new iPod

Nike+ 500 mile certificate

I started running with Nike+ on December 15, 2007, exactly a year ago tomorrow. Today, after a 12-mile run, I passed the 500th mile mark. In my quest to keep fit I fully expected to stick with running for at least a year; however, I certainly didn’t expect to be running as far or as often as I am today, a year later. My previous Nike+ certificate came at 100 miles. I received the “big dog” certificate to the right after uploading my run from today. (The date is off…probably a time zone issue.)

It seems like just yesterday when I set a goal to run 9 miles/week for 3 months. I’m now averaging about 25 miles/week whether running in the hot sand of Cabo or along the icy sidewalks of Seattle—it snowed last night and the roads were a mess today.

Apple iPod nano 4G in blue There was one casualty of all the long-distance, outdoor running: My refurbished iPod nano 2G. Apparently, iPods don’t like liquid and you may have heard it rains quite a bit here in Seattle. Further, those fancy, expensive Nike+ armbands are merely water-resistant, not waterproof. So, after running 11 miles in a downpour, my nano bit the dust. Not only did I lose the results of that run—which would have catapulted me to the 500-mile mark sooner—I lost my $99 running partner. It was a sad day.

TB, noticing the extent of my devastation, green-lighted an emergency trip to the Apple Store for a replacement…upgrade! I love my wife.

I am now running with a blue 8GB iPod nano 4G. Apple offered a $15 credit for the broken unit but I’m still not happy about paying $135 (before tax). I figure it’s still a pretty cheap running partner/trainer. The new 4th-generation nanos are much nicer than the two-year-old, 2nd-generation unit I ran with previously. The 4G has a bigger screen, twice the storage, better sound and snazzier navigation & graphics.

Also, if you buy (or already own) a nano 4G and are thinking of getting started with the Nike+ running program, I recommend the Apple Nike+ Sport Armband (TU017ZM/A). It is available through Amazon for about $30. The strap is much simpler to adjust and the full-body, protective film makes viewing and controlling the nano easier than the official 2G armbands. Lastly, it fits the 4G nano like a glove so the player won’t slide or slip during a run.

Where do the new iPod and I go from here? Well, four people have logged 10,000 ❗ miles with Nike+ leaving many milestones to reach.

Control your Sonos system with the iPhone

If you are relatively new to my blog, you may have to dig through the archives to discover I like the Sonos music distribution system. Since I wrote that post lots has changed that makes me like it even more.

First, with the recent v2.7 software update, Sonos owners now have free access to Pandora and Last.fm music streaming services. I have subscribed to Pandora in the past and both services are excellent alternatives to normal FM radio broadcasts because they are commercial-free and play songs based on your musical tastes. Now that they are free to Sonos owners, users of XM/Sirius radio might also want to take notice.

Second, Sonos provides a first-party application through the Apple App Store for controlling Sonos Zone Players using an iPhone or iPod touch. All you need is a Wi-Fi connection and you can control all your zones and access your entire music library anywhere in your home using the intuitive iPhone touch interface. This is great because Sonos charges $399 for a CR100 controller that does the same thing using a smaller screen and more complicated series of buttons and a circa-iPod-Generation-2 jog dial.

Check out the pictures below that I grabbed from my iPhone while playing around with our Sonos setup.

Sonos iPhone App - Zone Menu Sonos iPhone App - Zone Grouping
Sonos iPhone App - Music Menu Sonos iPhone App - Music Library Sonos iPhone App - Artists
Sonos iPhone App - Now Playing - Pandora Radio Sonos iPhone App - Now Playing - Music Library

Some HD video for your computer

This just came across my inbox at work. Microsoft and Akamai recently launched a new site, SmoothHD, to showcase the video capabilities of Silverlight combined with the smooth streaming features of Windows Server over Akamai’s content delivery network.

Admittedly, I am biased but the video quality blows me away. We’re talking about streaming high-def video over the Internet to your browser instantly. Even better, I just learned how to throw a basic curve ball on the eHow "channel." 😎

Silverlight Smooth HD