Beware: Webcam on Duty

jon.healey@latimes.com

As an electrical engineer for Agilent Technologies, John Roberts often has to travel far from his suburban Baltimore home for days at a time.

At first, Roberts wondered what might be happening at his house while he was away, an anxiety shared by many travelers. But now he knows, thanks to a Web-connected camera trained on the front of his house.

Think Webcams are just for video phone calls or self-indulgent performance art? Roberts is one of thousands of consumers using the low-cost cameras for a far more practical purpose: monitoring his property.

In addition to frequent travelers like Roberts, this class of Webcam users includes people who just want to keep an eye on their home, kids or pets while they're at work. A growing number of companies are pitching Web-based services to these consumers, including New York-based Xanboo, Popcast Communications of Los Angeles, SpotLife of San Mateo and Surveyor Corp. of San Luis Obispo.

Little technical expertise or cash is required to set up a home-security Webcam. A basic camera sells for $50 to $100, and several companies offer free space on the Web for Webcam snapshots or short videos. Others charge a monthly fee of $5 or more for putting videos on the Web, including Xanboo and SpotLife, whose technology is included with about two-thirds of the Webcams on the market, company officials say.

Roberts HomeWatcher, a computer program designed to detect motion in front of a Webcam.

HomeWatcher automatically sends a time-stamped digital picture to Roberts' Web site whenever it detects a change in the scene outside his house. While he's on the road, he'll check the site four or five times a day for a quick recap of the action.

The pictures haven't revealed anything sensational yet, just the occasional package being dropped on his porch. That's a good thing to know, Roberts said, because he can ask the neighbors to move the packages to a safer spot.

"You're always scared of coming home and finding your house has been robbed," Roberts said. Although the camera probably won't prevent a break-in, he said, "I'll at least know if it has happened."

A free version of HomeWatcher is available on the Web.

Stephanie Chmura, a fashion-industry executive in New York City, uses three of Xanboo's cameras and two audio sensors to gain a virtual window into the life of her dog, Guinness. For a subscription fee of $10 or more per month, Xanboo gives users the ability to monitor live feeds from their cameras, receive e-mail or pager alerts when something is detected, and control selected electronic equipment around the home, such as lights and thermostats.

The Xanboo cameras also help keep the dog walkers, workmen and other hired help honest, noting what time they come and go as well as their movements around the apartment.

"I've gone from not knowing what happened in my apartment to knowing everything. . . . I feel much more in control of what's happening when I walk out the door," she said.

To get a live video feed from their home, consumers must have a round-the-clock connection to the Internet--a high-speed phone line, say, or a cable modem. Otherwise, consumers need software that can dial into the Internet and upload pictures at regular intervals or when motion is detected.

The most common complaint is that some cameras perform poorly in low light. Alan McKay, a computer programmer in Ottawa, Canada, got the XCam2 package from X10 but had "pretty poor performance even during the daytime, if you have the curtains drawn."

One shortcoming of the inexpensive Webcams is their point of view can't be changed via the Internet. They typically offer a rectangular image that covers just a slice of a room.

For those willing to spend $800 or more on a "pan-tilt-zoom" camera, HomeWatcher is developing a new version of its software that will rotate the camera automatically and zoom in on areas where it detects a change, developer Pjotr van Schothorst said. A less expensive option is to buy a $360 camera platform from Surveyor that can be tilted and rotated via the Web.

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Times staff writer Jon Healey covers the convergence of entertainment and technology.

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