Running a security camera over a power line network

* WiLife's LukWerks Surveillance System

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You would think I’ve had enough of trying to run data over my home's power lines given the woes of the power line network adapters I’ve tested (see our last two newsletters). But then I've been nothing if not adventurous (hence the newsletter's title).

The product that just crossed my desk begging to be installed is a network camera and surveillance system. What makes WiLife's LukWerks Surveillance System different from other network cameras and IP surveillance systems is, instead of using Ethernet or Wi-Fi to transmit video signals back to a PC, it uses HomePlug. Yep, I was back to testing power line networks.

The LukWerks Starter Kit ($300) includes a camera that attaches via Ethernet cable to a power line adapter. Using your home's power lines, data is transmitted to a second power line adapter, which then connects via USB cable to the PC you want to use as the “monitoring station.” Software that comes with the system lets you monitor up to six cameras. Additional cameras are sold separately ($230), and include an additional power line adapter and Ethernet cable.

The beauty of the system is you don't need an existing power line network to run the LukWerks system - it runs on its own network between the adapters and your PC. Furthermore, you don't need to run the data through an existing router - installation is as easy as installing the software and then placing the cameras near a power outlet.

The Starter Kit includes a variety of camera mounting options - a suction cup for placing a camera on a window to monitor the outside or inside of a room; a desktop stand for placing on a flat surface like a table or desk; or a more traditional wall mount. My system was up and running within minutes after installing the software.

And the software is where LukWerks really shines. While you could sit at your computer all day and watch the live feed, what you really want to see is when something moves in front of the camera. The cameras include motion detection that trigger the software to record events whenever something (or someone) moves. The software also lets you set up smaller motion detection zones to record only when something moves within that zone. For example, I set up my camera to record only when motion was detected on the road in front of my house - if a leaf blew across the lawn it wouldn't record.

The software lets you increase or decrease the sensitivity of the motion detection - something I discovered after watching video of shadows from a window causing the camera to turn on and record. Having a very sensitive camera may be useful in some cases, but in my tests I got lots of videos of nothing happening except for the wind movement or a shadow moving across the table.

Each video clip is saved as a separate file, which you can then store and watch individually. During a 12-hour period where I monitored the front yard, I ended up with 181 files (again, the sensitivity was set too high, causing clips where wind caused the camera to record). The largest file was a 44-second clip that took up about 1.9MB of space. The smallest file was a 7-second clip that took up 167KB of space.

A second camera that monitored my living room (again, with a high-sensitivity setting) gave me 388 clips over the 12-hour period. This included a 41-second clip of one of my cats walking in front of the camera and sitting on the table for a few seconds (please note it's a 1.77MB file).

The software can send alerts when motion is detected, including sending a text message, attaching a video frame or a video clip to an e-mail (again, make sure you lower the sensitivity so you don't end up with 388 e-mails). You can also set up remote monitoring that lets you view your cameras from a Web browser across the Internet. I tried to set up an account to try this, but never got the confirmation e-mail from the company to set up my remote account.

Other issues I had: while the cameras are easy to set up and place, the lack of auto-focus means you'll likely have a somewhat out-of-focus image. Manually focusing the cameras is a two-person job - one person to twist the lens into focus, the other person to sit at the computer and yell when the picture is the clearest.

In addition, while you can adjust the brightness, contrast, resolution, frame rate and bit rate of the video, strong light sources such as sunlight or a lamp also seem to wash out the image. It will take some time to adjust the cameras to the point where you'll be happy with the video quality.

Overall, I was much more impressed with the LukWerks software (watching the history of recorded clips was outstanding) than with the actual cameras. The power line connectivity was a unique and interesting approach to solve the problem of network connectivity (to avoid Ethernet drops or Wi-Fi congestion issues). If the company can come out with cameras that include auto-focus and pan, tilt and zoom features, then I'll get really excited about the system.

One final note - this is my last HomeLAN Adventures column - I've had a blast writing about home networking equipment and the joys and woes of certain products. Unfortunately, the realities of e-mail newsletter production costs without advertiser support prevent us from continuing.

Readers interested in my further adventures in home networking can continue to read the weekly Cool Tools column in Network World and the Cool Tools Happy Blog online for product reviews and opinions within this space. Thanks also to those who wrote in and let me know about their HomeLAN Adventures as well.

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