Keep Tabs on Your Home with a Low-cost Web Cam

By Joseph Moran

December 17, 2007

While a typical USB-based Web cam has no inherent networking capabilities, when paired with the right software you can also use it as a remote monitoring device, letting you keep tabs on your home or office while you're away.

If you're like me, you've got a Web cam sitting on your desk not far from your PC, which you use to keep in visual contact with others either through Skype or one of the various IM services that support videoconferencing (such as AIM, MSN/Windows Live Messenger, or Yahoo Messenger). While a typical USB-based Web cam has no inherent networking capabilities, when paired with the right software you can also use it as a remote monitoring device, letting you keep tabs on your home or office while you're away.

Now, because a Web cam must remain tethered to your PC, it doesn't give you the same placement flexibility as monitoring cameras that connect directly to your wired or wireless network. Nevertheless, if your PC is in a convenient location or you can move it to one, your ordinary Web cam can offer a useful way to keep an eye on cleaning personnel, kids, babysitters, pets and so on. You can even point the camera out a window to see which neighbor's dog is using your lawn as a toilet every day while you're at work.

There are several good and inexpensive commercial software programs that will let you access your Web cam from afar, but I've come across one that's not only easy to set up, it's also (sort of) free. Yawcam, which stands for Yet Another Web cam Software, should work with pretty much any USB Web cam. The software's compatible with Windows Vista, XP, or 2000, and because it's written in Java, you'll need version 6 or later of the (JRE) Java Runtime Environment (get it at www.java.com/en/download/index.jsp). You'll also need to be running least DirectX 9 and Windows Media Player 9, or newer versions.

Yawcam is a quick 3 MB download, which you can download here. Although there's no obligatory registration fee, the author does accept voluntary donations via PayPal (so if you like the software and plan to keep using it, consider sending in some money).

After you install and launch Yawcam, you'll see a small control window with five "lights," each paired with an enable button. If Yawcam successfully detects your camera, it will display live video in a separate window. (If your camera hasn't been detected, choose Settings|Detect Web cam from the menu.)

Network configuration

Yawcam uses a built-in Web server that allows you to view the camera from any browser. You can activate it by clicking the enable button next to Http in the control window, which should turn the light from red to a blueish-green. If you're running a software firewall on your PC, this may cause you to be prompted to allow Yawcam — or more specifically, the JRE — to use the network connection.

Once the Web server's up, click the Console tab and look for an entry listing your computer's IP address. Now point your browser to that address, using port 8888; for example, if the IP address is 192.168.1.2, you'd enter 192.168.1.2:8888. (Ideally you should do this from a local system other than the one running Yawcam, to make sure it's working over your network.) The resulting page should display a time and date-stamped still image from your camera, and refreshing this page in your browser will update the image accordingly.

In most cases, a series of stills is just fine for monitoring purposes, but if you'd also like the capability to view motion video remotely, click the enable button next to Stream. Then point to the same IP address with your browser, only this time use port 8081. Now, rather than a static image you should see a moving one instead. Moving your mouse cursor to the upper edge of the video window will reveal some controls that will allow you adjust the frame rate, quality, and size of the image.

Access via the Internet

Accessing your camera from your internal network is all well and good, but what we really want to do is reach it from the Internet. If your broadband router supports UPnP (as most modern routers do), Yawcam will use it to automatically set up the appropriate port forwarding (the aforementioned Console display should indicate whether this was done successfully). Otherwise, you'll have to manually forward ports 8888 and/or 8081 to the IP address of your Yawcam system — consult your hardware's documentation on how to do this with your particular router.

You can easily check to see if your Yawcam setup is visible to the outside world by going to Settings|Edit settings and then clicking Connection. Yawcam will detect and display the public IP address you'll need to access the camera from the Internet, and clicking the Am I online button will open a Web page indicating whether Yawcam is reachable from outside your network. If your public IP address periodically changes (as many do), you should always check this setting before leaving the premises so you know the correct address to use for remote access. For easier and more reliable remote access, you can set up Dynamic DNS service — check out this article for details.

Other useful stuff

If you want to retain screen grabs of captured video, you can have Yawcam save them directly on the computer (the File option) or upload them to an FTP server. Yawcam's Settings interface will also let you customize the software in lots of useful ways, including using different network ports, password protecting access to streamed video, detecting motion, or automatically running according to a pre-defined schedule.

Before we finish up, here are a couple of caveats. When using Yawcam to view streamed video over the Internet, the quality will be dependent on the speed of your upstream connection — in most cases, the visuals will likely not be as good as they are on your internal network. Also — and this may seem like a no brainer, but I'll mention it anyway — if your camera uses a manual lens cover, make sure you flip or remove it before you leave otherwise there won't be much to see.

Last but not least, a single Web cam can't be accessed by multiple programs simultaneously, so as long as Yawcam is running the camera won't be available for use in Skype or IM software, or vice versa. One potential way around this issue is to use a separate Web cam dedicated to Yawcam, which can be a cost-effective option since decent Web cams can be had for as little as $25-$30.

Joe Moran is a regular contributor to PracticallyNetworked and Wi-FiPlanet.



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