Video surveillance for anyone with a PC

Want to keep track of things at home when you're not there? Rather than spending thousands of dollars to have a professional video security system installed, you can build one yourself for about US$250 per camera. Logitech International SA's WiLife Video Security System cameras can be strategically placed throughout your home or office to keep an eye on things and alert you when something's amiss.

The beauty of the Video Security System is that you can mix and match its cameras depending on where you want them. In addition to an indoor video camera, there's a weatherproof outdoor device as well as a spy camera that looks like a digital alarm clock. The cameras sell for $230 to $250 each. You can also purchase fuller "systems." For example, the Indoor Video Security Master System, includes a camera (plus additional hardware such as a window mount and a USB receiver for your computer) and Logitech's Command Center software for $300.

While the cameras capture the action, the Command Center software not only connects each camera to a monitoring screen, but also lets you view any of them remotely via a connected computer. All the cameras create 640- by 480-pixel video streams at up to 15 frames per second.

I tried out the $230 Indoor Camera and the $250 Spy Camera (which, as I mentioned, is disguised as an alarm clock). Unlike other surveillance cameras I've used in the past, such as the D-Link DCS-2100+ and the Linksys WVC54GC, the WiLife devices were a snap to set up and configure.

Logitech uses the HomePlug standard to send the video over a building's electrical lines. The camera plugs into the nearest wall socket; at the other end, the receiver plugs (on one end) into another wall socket and (on the other) a USB port on your computer. The only restriction is that you need to plug each camera directly into an outlet and avoid using surge suppressors, which can disrupt the signal.

The hardest part of the process? Setting the clock-camera's time.

After running the included CD -- which includes the drivers, the Command Center monitoring software and a program for putting it all online in a secure manner -- I was asked to choose how much of my computer's hard drive to devote to recorded video. The software then searched for the cameras, which required a couple of tries to accomplish. Once the software found them, new firmware was loaded onto the cameras and automatically sent to them (via the HomePlug-enabled connections) and they were watching over my office about 15 minutes after I started.

The Command Center surveillance window runs on recent versions of Windows (but not Mac or Linux systems) and can monitor up to six different cameras at a time. There's a place to adjust the video's brightness and contrast, and to turn off the camera's LEDs so they are less conspicuous to intruders. There's also a competent playback interface for viewing recorded video. On the downside, you can't show the video feeds as a screen gadget on a Vista desktop.

The basic WiLife service lets you tap into the surveillance video streams over the Internet with any connected notebook, PDA or smart phone that has Windows Media Player software loaded. It worked well with a Windows Mobile phone and a notebook, but it could only display one camera at a time, and the video is limited to 320 by 240 pixels. Still, it's good enough for anxious homeowners on vacation or small business managers worried about office break-ins.

The system is capable of constant video recording, but you can also set a trigger that initiates recording only when the scene in the room changes, such as when a thief enters and removes the TV or (unfortunately) when your dog walks by. It's easy to adjust the video trigger, and the system can e-mail you a text alert or a photo or video of the action.

As easy as they are to set up, the cameras are stationary and can't be panned, zoomed or focused remotely. They have a range of about 75 feet, so you're limited on where you can put the cameras. I found that the video they created had an odd color balance and a lens distortion that made doorways look curved and that image quality wasn't particularly good in the dark or with bright lights. Since it has no audio, it's a silent movie -- but it's more than enough to get the goods on a burglar or vandal.

WiLife has a Platinum upgrade for $80 per year that's a step up from the basic service. It allows you to manage the cameras remotely, zoom in on a particular area of any camera's field of view and store the videos online.

All told, the Video Security System is an easy and inexpensive way to set up a simple surveillance network that can alert you if there's a break-in and record the incident as evidence. But it's limited as to where you can put the cameras. It's also rather easy to defeat -- if the thief takes the computer with the video evidence on it.

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This story, "Video surveillance for anyone with a PC" was originally published by Computerworld.

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