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DIY home surveillance with a Webcam

Too cheap to buy a real home security system? A Webcam gets you part of the way there. We examine a few ways to do it with an old computer or with some fun new gadgets.

CNET / Josh Lowensohn

We're on the tail end of the summer vacation season, which according to the FBI is one of the peak periods of home burglaries. Chances are good you're about to head out of town, leaving your dwelling to fend for itself against intruders.

Got a house sitter or an alarm system? Good for you. If not, there are a handful of ways to turn a computer into a tool that will alert you if someone's there who shouldn't be.

For the sake of this guide we're keeping things simple and limiting our list to free apps that work on PCs, Macs, or both. A few simply use your browser. Later on we also have a section on specialty hardware that can take you beyond what most Webcams are capable of.

The software

Software can offer a definite piece of mind over browser-based solutions. Most of these apps can run quietly in the background, and can save footage to your hard drive for archiving. High-end Webcams often come with their own security software, so in the spirit of this guide, we're going with generic software that should work with any model:

Yawcam (PC)
Yawcam is free and PC-only. It's a complex program but not too complex to set-up. The app lets you set whether you want to capture all of the motion within the frame or just a part of it. I used it to track motion in a specific part of my workplace: CNET colleague Rafe Needleman's office door. Any time he came in or out of his office it took a photo. At home this is more useful if you point it toward something like a door or entry way, which can keep it from picking up one of your pets moving around.

The app does an exceptional job at letting you pick various ways you want to be notified. You can have it upload screen shots to an FTP site or as an e-mail. It can also play any sound on your computer, or start another program (such as a lock-down or keyboard locking application).

Yawcam can be set to snap and e-mail a pic whenever it senses motion. It was one of the easiest tools to set up. CNET

I set mine up with Gmail, which was a snap. You just have to have plug in the outgoing settings on Google's help page and it will send a high-quality screen shot of whatever motion it's captured just a few seconds after it happens. Using this with your phone's e-mail address will give you a live alert and a saved copy of all the shots in Gmail's sent folder.

HomeCamera (PC)
This software runs a streaming video client that can be accessed from any computer with a browser. You can view either live video or snapshots that can be taken at intervals or on-demand. HomeCamera's secret sauce is being able to e-mail you when you're not there. You can have it send you an SMS alert, or an e-mail--both of which can link to the video or a snapshot. You can also set it to record video or take sequential shots on a precise schedule.

Yoics (PC)
Yoics is a remote desktop application with a lot of tricks up its sleeve. Remote Webcam security is one of them. You can very quickly add a Webcam that can be streamed to a private Web address, along with having its footage archived to the local machine.

It can also be set up not only to send you an e-mail if it detects motion but also send a note to a Twitter account and upload whatever footage it's captured to YouTube or Daily Motion. There is quite a bit of setup involved though, and the wizard that walks you through it is bound to overwhelm the average user.

EyeSpyFX (PC & Mac)
This software works on Windows and Mac and has a mobile viewer that can be accessed on a handful of devices, including the iPhone. I tried it on a Mac. The software, while primitive, does a good job with privacy; the only way to access your stream is with your camera's special PIN. It also supposedly keeps an online and offline archive of your footage, although I couldn't get either to work.

Honorable mention: If you're willing to shell out $30, you can go with Mac-only EvoCam, which I've heard good things about. It does motion capturing, e-mails, and offers mobile access. It's not included in this roundup since it costs money to use.

The Webware

Webware can sometimes be less capable than software but on the plus side there's nothing to install. And in many cases, you can use the same service with a single account on several machines. Some of the ones on this list can also support multiple cameras at once, which is handy for covering more than one room (or house) at a time.

Ugolog is a really easy Web-based security tool that displays live footage and an archive of snapshots from your Webcam. It works with any camera that's attached to your computer or a remote camera with an IP address.

While there is no way to receive alerts via e-mail, the service provides alerts via an RSS feed for every camera you have set up. Using a service like Pingie (previous coverage), would let you get an SMS alert every time a new photo shows up.

Another thing to note is that archiving is not unlimited. In the course of a few hours I used 20MB of my 5GB monthly storage allotment. While this "pro" plan is free during Ugolog's beta period, the eventual free plan drops that storage down to 100MB per month. Then again, if you're using it for only a few days and aren't expecting any motion, this isn't a problem.

Ugolog gives you a time line of any time it's picked up motion. You can then cruise through the stills it's taken at 4x speed. CNET

UStream.tv / Justin.tv
Both UStream and Justin.tv are set up to let anyone create a live broadcast free of charge. There's also a way to make the stream password-protected, meaning only you and those you've given the code to will be able to see it.

There's no time limit on recording, which means you can leave it running for days, then come back to an archive that lives on the Web. Now, this may not be as great as using one of the aforementioned tools that uses motion detection, but if someone does in fact break into your house and steal your computer, the archive won't be stolen too.

An honorable mention goes to Livestream.com, which can also do free live broadcasting and recording, although to password protect the stream and limit viewers, you need to sign up for the paid premium plan.

Specialty hardware

Now, we're not telling you to go out and buy a professional security setup, but there are a few specialty Webcams that make it easier to keep an eye on things when you're out. All of them come with bundled software, meaning you don't necessarily have to use some of the tools mentioned above.


Tilt-and-pan Webcams:

Panasonic BL-C131A wireless network camera ($230)
This Webcam has a few things going for it. For one, you don't have to have a computer running for it to be on. It just needs a power plug and a working wireless router in range. It's got a handful of sensors that you can set up to watch for motion, listen for sound, or pick up thermal images. It can also pan and tilt remotely, letting you take control of it from another computer.

D-Link DCS-5220 Wireless Pan/Tilt Network Camera ($280)
D-Link's wireless pan and tilt camera also works remotely, and without the need to be attached to a computer. It can be accessed and controlled in a browser on a regular computer or through a mobile phone browser.

Remote-controlled robots:

WoWee's Rovio ($299)
Half RC car, half Webcam, WowWee's Rovio lets you view live video and steer it from any Web browser. It's equipped with Wi-Fi so there are no wires for it to get caught on. And it's got LED headlights and a way point system you can place that keep you from having to manually steer it from one end of the house to the other. This gadget is obviously not so helpful if you live in a multistory dwelling or are trying to dissuade a live burglary, but it gives you far more maneuverability than you'd get with a stationary Webcam.

The Spykee is half toy, half surveillance unit. Erector

Meccano Spykee The Wi-Fi Spy Robot ($195)
The Spykee is a Webcam strapped to a set of rubber treads that look quite a bit like Jonny 5 from the film Short Circuit. It costs less than some of the above tilt-and-pan wireless Webcams. It also doubles as a toy since you can add on all sorts of attachments onto the robotic base using parts from Erector play sets.

Like the Rovio, you can control the Spykee from any networked computer and it has a charging dock to go back to when it needs more juice. It can also be set up to take a photo and e-mail it to you if it detects motion using the included software.

These are just a few of the tools to keep an eye on your home when you're not there. If you're serious about guarding your home, a professional security system can be a lot more helpful at deterring would-be burglars and alerting the authorities. Again, if you're not willing to invest in something like that, many of these options are better than nothing.

Got a DIY solution of your own? Share it in the comments.