Seeing and hearing a place from afar is a powerful use of the modern communications infrastructure of the Internet. Setting up a surveillance system, baby monitor, bird-watching station or other remote viewing application is increasingly accessible and affordable for a home user. Camera and microphone hardware, Internet connection, home network setup and software are the key components of your project to consider.
You can easily find a basic webcam with built-in microphone that connects to your computer's USB ports for less than $10. The image resolution -- the number of pixels in the length and width of the camera's image -- is the most relevant feature to pay attention to. The 720p format, generally considered the low-end high-definition video standard, has a resolution of 1280-by-720 pixels and a camera with resolution in that range will cost considerably more than a low-resolution model. Another consideration is the type of computer connection -- depending on your application, it may not be convenient to place your webcam close enough to the computer to connect it with USB. Alternatives include IP cameras, which connect to your home network instead of directly to your computer, and Wi-Fi cameras that connect to your network wirelessly.
The upload (upstream) speed your Internet connection is capable of is a critical indicator of how well your setup will work for remote viewing. The bandwidth recommendations of the popular Ustream streaming service indicate a minimum upload speed of 1 megabit per second and at least 2 Mbps for high-definition video and audio. If you don't know what upload speed your current service is capable of, use a bandwidth test to get a general idea (link in Resources).
Delivering video and audio to a remote viewer on the Internet involves more than just a fast Internet connection -- you will probably need to set up a service called port forwarding on your home network's router in order to allow computers on the Internet to connect directly to your computer and view the webcam (see link in Resources). You will also need to either secure a static IP address from your ISP or use a dynamic domain name service to ensure you can consistently connect to your webcam from the Internet. A dynamic domain name is fairly easy to set up for free with a service like No-IP (link in Resources).
The final piece of the puzzle, and one of the most important, is the webcam software you use. Research carefully to make sure the program you decide on will fulfill the requirements of your webcam application and is compatible with your camera and network setup. ICam, iSpy Connect, Xeoma and webcamXP (links in Resources) are popular options that include features like motion detection and Web access, but complexity of features, supported webcams and prices vary. ICam is the simplest of the four and is free, so try it first if you want to experiment with a basic setup.
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