Video Out: The Wonderful World of WebCams

There is something enthralling about WebCams. Perhaps it’s the ability to instantly see what’s going on in some distant location. Is it snowing in Beijing? Is Melvin the goldfish still swimming around? All you have to do is log onto the Web and take a look!

What began with a few "goofballs" hooking up cameras to the Web so that others could dial up their sites to see live video, has become a popular feature of many Web pages. Here’s how you can add your own distinctive twist to this growing segment of Internet data.


What Makes a WebCam?

Before we get into the nuts and bolts of actually setting up a WebCam, let’s start by defining it. What is it that distinguishes a WebCam from say, a streamed video presentation?

According to the WebCam Producer’s Guide to Fun (Critter Publications, 1999), an online video source must meet three criteria to be a true WebCam. First, it must be live. Whatever people visiting your site see must be going on at the present time.

Second, it must not be an edited or switched program. If you are streaming a live program that has editing or switching involved, then that is a live broadcast, not a WebCam.

Third, your online source must come from a single computer-contained camera. According to these criteria, using your camcorder hooked up to your capture card would not count. But that’s definitely no reason to stop you from doing it that way.

So with these points in mind, you have decided to hookup a WebCam so that people from anywhere on earth can tune in and see if your dog, Sparky, is in his house. But how do you put a WebCam in Sparky’s doghouse? Where do you start?


Five Easy Steps

We are providing a functional overview of the process for establishing a WebCam. However, the specifics will vary widely from one camera to another, from one software package to another and from one Internet host to another. Please see the Places to Go for Help or to Brag sidebar for places to look for more detailed information on this.



Step 1

Get A Camera

The first thing you need in order to set up a WebCam isa WebCam! Depending on whether you desire black-and-white or color, little "egg" cams can be quite reasonable, sometimes selling for only $49. The newer ones are generally all USB, so installation is simple.

As we said above, your digital home video camera can also serve as the hardware for your WebCam, as well as many digital still cameras. These can hook up via a FireWire cable to your capture card. Whichever you choose, make sure your camera is working properly before moving to the next step. So, without getting too device specific, hook your WebCam up to your computer according to the instructions that came with it. If it is a USB camera, then plug it into a USB port on your computer. If it’s one of the older parallel or serial port cameras it may be a little trickier, but again, make sure to read the manual that came with your camera to avoid conflicts with your particular computer system.



Step 2

Install the Software

Your camera will come with two types of software that need to be installed into your computer: drivers, which tell the computer how to communicate with the camera; and applications, some of which are viewer software allowing you to see what your camera is seeing. There also may be applications for videoconferencing and for WebCamming.

Once you have the software installed, then you should be able to view the camera’s signal on your monitor. Your camera probably also came with software necessary to get its images on the Web. If not, you can check out some of the links in the Places to Go for Help or to Brag sidebar, or you can go to one of the big download sites (such as www.downloads.com) and download some software to do it, such as WebCam32 or ISpy.



Step 3

Connect to a Server

In order to get the images to the Web, your computer must send the image to a server. If you have a high-speed connection to the Internet, you could choose to serve them yourself, although that could eat up a lot of bandwidth.

What you will need to do is to have your software (like WebCam32) send the stream of images coming out of your camera to a specific location on your server. Your hosting agency will tell you where to send it. You will also be able to design a Web page to have the stream from your WebCam appear. For example, since we started out wanting to get Sparky’s doghouse online, we could design a Web page that looks like a doghouse, has information about Sparky and includes a "window" in which your viewers would see the live images.

There are several tools available to help you design Web pages without writing any programming at all (www.homestead.com, for instance). Check with your Web host for information on the products they recommend for their servers.



Step 4

Make Image Quality Decisions

Speaking of servers, there will probably be some choices you will have to make regarding how they serve your WebCam data. Will you allow anyone to view it, or is it private? What refresh rate (frame rate, so to speak) do you want? Remember that the higher the refresh rates, the more bandwidth the WebCam consumes. Your average Web surfer is still connecting at about 36k, using a 56k modem. Consider whether your WebCam refresh rate might overwhelm their connection so they are unable to view complete frames.



Step 5

Fine Tune it

Okay, video of Sparky’s doghouse is now flowing into computers everywhere, but the image is not right. Moreover, the refresh rate looks slow, but some of your friends are already complaining about not getting the whole image, due to bandwidth restrictions. What do you do?

First, make sure you adjust the camera as you would to shoot video. Make sure you focus on the subject, adjust contrast and white balance settings (if you are not familiar with adjustment of white balance just use the auto function on your camera). Some cameras have Back Light Compensation which you may have to use to combat bright light sources like daylight through windows. Once you have your image looking as good as possible you can move on to the refresh rate. The refresh rate is probably going to be a constant struggle between better video and people’s slow connections. One thing you can do is to reduce the image size. Most WebCam software allows you to resize the image to a smaller frame. You may be able to achieve 15fps, which is pretty darned good for Web video. Of course, it may be 15fps with a tiny picture, but you will have to choose what looks better and what gives your viewers more of what they want out of Sparky’s Doghouse.


Why Not, It’s Fun

Whether you choose to have a live 24-hour stream from your computer or just to send quick messages, a WebCam is all about having fun with the technology. It can be informative, personal, funny and a great way to stay in touch with family and friends. Though it’s not video production in the classical sense where lighting, camera work, sound quality and editing play a major role, it provides people access to information and video communication in a fun and accessible manner.

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