Now Playing: Owen goes Hollywood

I know many of our friends and family visit this site periodically to catch glimpses of Owen. It is nice to have the people closest to us follow his development, particularly those who live far away.

This week, I have a special announcement for my readers. You can now watch Owen star in a new series of home movies by visiting the Owen group we created on Vimeo. There are 16 videos as of this writing, including Owen and his mom bonding the day he was born (see below).

 


Owen bonds with his mother the day he’s born. (March 29, 2009)

We upload new videos every week or two and you can be notified as new videos become available by subscribing to this RSS feed. Let me know what you think by sharing your comments below or on Vimeo.

Owen’s videos: http://vimeo.com/groups/owen/videos (RSS)

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.

Great Moments in Alpha History: May 1995 Northeastern University Stepshow Competition

You are about to witness something special. Something rare, magnificent and hilarious. This is how I chose to give thanks on this special day. Alas, I am getting ahead of myself and need to set the stage.

As you may recall, I’m an Alpha man. My two line brothers and I pledged Rho Nu Chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. in spring 1995. (On an historical note, Rho Nu—which encompasses MIT, Harvard and Tufts—will celebrate its 20th anniversary next September.) I was digging through some old VHS tapes, from the brief period during my college days when I had a camcorder, and came across several gems. In addition to footage of family, I also had hours of tape from the Million Man March and a tape of my first stepshow…the topic of this post.

Rho Nu Chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. Rho Nu inducts its new members in the spring. The tradition is the newest members join with the “older” chapter bros and their fellow counterparts from Sigma chapter—which covers the Boston side of the Charles River—to compete against other fraternities in the area in the annual Northeastern University Stepshow competition. At stake are trophies, a year’s worth of bragging rights and a hockey rink full of women who like a good stepshow and love to see young men work up a sweat.

Sidebar:
I suggest you take a moment to read the bottom of my Alpha turns 100 post which includes a brief summary of stepshows and their significance to Black Greek letter organizations.

To recap, after pledging during the long, bitter New England winter, a new member practices a couple more months with his fellow fraternity brothers to represent the fraternity at the competition and (hopefully) avoid completely humiliating himself in front of the Greater Boston community (which may include his future wife). It just so happens TB was the camerawoman for my first stepshow so there is a modest correlation between stepshows and long-lasting love, right?

Without further ado, I present a Keith’s Amusing Musings exclusive, 16-minute video of the Alpha step team from the May 1995 competition. We won first place, of course. So, go ahead and crank up the sound, sit back and feast your eyes on the “Peabo Bryson circa 1993” inspired suits, forceful rhythms and intricate formations only Alphas could pull off.