Dropcam puts home surveillance in the cloud

Webcams have ushered in a wealth of home surveillance applications, but Dropcam is trying to take it to the next level by putting up to 30 days of 24/7 recordings in the cloud.

Josh Lowensohn Former Senior Writer
Josh Lowensohn joined CNET in 2006 and now covers Apple. Before that, Josh wrote about everything from new Web start-ups, to remote-controlled robots that watch your house. Prior to joining CNET, Josh covered breaking video game news, as well as reviewing game software. His current console favorite is the Xbox 360.
Josh Lowensohn
7 min read
Josh Lowensohn/CNET

Last August, I wrote about converting a Webcam into a home security tool, and truth be told, the results were underwhelming. Sure there are services and specialty hardware that let you do it with very little setup, but there continued to be a notable gap in what you could do with some consumer solutions versus the considerably more expensive, professional surveillance gear.

One company that's tried to find a happy medium between those two groups is Dropcam. Based in San Francisco and founded by former Xobni engineers Greg Duffy and Amir Virani, Dropcam turns a fairly standard Webcam into a home security tool with an elephant's memory.

The hardware, which retails at $199, is actually made by another company, Axis Communications. Dropcam's service, which goes along with it, is where things get interesting.

How it works

Instead of offering just a live feed, as people are able to get with most IP Webcams, Dropcam's video can be sent to the cloud (actually a concrete bunker in Texas) for safe keeping. Compared to storing recordings on a computer that's located inside the place you're surveilling, this makes for a much more secure solution. And unlike some do-it-yourself solutions that use FTP to send video or photo stills to the cloud, Dropcam handles all those settings, so that you essentially just plug the thing into a wall socket.

Video can be viewed online, on any computer with Adobe's Flash player installed. The company also recently released an iPhone app that can pull up the live stream of your camera, and a handful of sample cameras.

On the Web, Dropcam can store up to 30 days of nonstop video. This appears as a timeline, which can be scaled anywhere from one second all the way to a week. It also makes it easy to see when things actually happened. Times when the camera sensed motion are marked as yellow dots, and when a user mouses over one of these dots, it pops up with small thumbnails of what was captured. The same thing happens if you hover over any part of the timeline.

Dropcam's motion detection system puts a small yellow dot on its viewer timeline each time it sees any action. You can then hover over the timeline to get a preview of what it saw. Screenshot by Josh Lowensohn/CNET

Right now there's not much you can do with these images and video clips, but in the near future Dropcam plans to roll out a notification service that will send an e-mail or SMS text message to users, that includes a clip of what's been captured, every time one of these events occurs. Some of the software and Webware solutions we looked at last year did this, and it's definitely a must-have feature for people who want to use it for security purposes.

Who it's for

Dropcam is mainly a consumer solution, but the service has a pro service plan too. The basic service is free, but users at that level don't get any recording storage. The plus plan, which costs $8.95 a month saves a week of footage, while the pro plan, at $24.95, saves 30 days. That ends up working out to 50GB of video on the high end. Both of the higher-end plans also let you use two cameras instead of one.

On the horizon is a baby-monitoring service, which the company is currently gathering up interest for and running as a beta test. This will include 100 hours of recording time and a way to share it with friends and relatives, as well as a camera that features night vision, letting users watch in the dark.

There's also a small business solution in the works that will make use of the motion tracking tools to keep track of how many customers are coming and going, alongside all the other standard recording features.

What's next

One of the main limitations when compared with some other consumer Webcam offerings is the size of the video. Dropcam's current hardware tops out at 640x480 at 30 frames per second, though it's being run at a quarter of that resolution and at half the speed (320x240 at 15 fps). By comparison, a slew of the latest high-definition Webcams offer streams several magnitudes higher in resolution.

In a chat with CNET last week, Dropcam co-founder Greg Duffy said the company plans to unlock more of the potential within the hardware. He says this is well within reach considering they are writing both the camera firmware and server software. The larger problem has been trying to make sure it's got a steady enough stream of bandwidth to keep running day in and day out. For now that magic number is 128kbps, which can work on consumer DSL without bringing things to a screeching halt. Part of that is due to the camera being able to encode video in H.264, which takes up less bandwidth than other, more common formats.

A benefit of extra resolution will be face tracking, which Duffy says is on the company's roadmap. "We're planning things to increase the effective resolutions of the camera that let you zoom in on particular areas," he said. "There's a lot of technology that's being used in stores to follow around people automatically, and we think that would be cool to bring that to the consumer level."

Though with the limited resolution, face tracking does not lend itself to actual facial identification, which can be important when using the footage after a crime or break-in. "There's nothing to stop us from doing megapixel cameras, and things like that going forward," Duffy said, but noted that the cameras being used have a higher quality sensor than most Webcams do. "They're made to be security cameras, so you get a pretty good picture from it."

Also on the roadmap is an enhanced version of the iPhone app that will let users jog around on a timeline just like they do on their computers. The app is already doing a few things differently from other streaming camera providers. In fact, Dropcam completely bypassed Apple's built-in streaming tools, in favor of their own code to add things like multiple camera viewing, which will be here by the end of this year.

How it stacks up against competitors

The Vue runs off of battery power, and can be stuck in inconspicuous places. Rafe Needleman/CNET

One of Dropcam's main competitors is Avaak's Vue system (coverage), which is also capable of recording to the cloud, although at a lower capacity. Vue users get 2GB to 4GB of storage for their online footage, which amounts to 18-48 hours of video depending on what video settings they have enabled and what storage plan they're on.

Though unlike Dropcam, Vue comes with a handful of cameras that are much smaller and can run off battery power. These need to talk to a proprietary wireless transmitter that needs to be hooked up to your home router, whereas Dropcam can simply connect to your home Wi-Fi signal. The Vue cameras are also unable to pick up motion.

Another competitor is UGOlog, which unlike Dropcam does not offer its own hardware, or do video. Instead it does a rapid succession of still images and can be configured to work with any old USB Webcam, along with specialty IP and FTP cameras. Just like Dropcam it has a free service and two tiers of paid plans that offer support for additional cameras (up to 10 versus Dropcam's two) and extra storage. It also tops Dropcam in terms of history by going back two months in time instead of one, although it's capped at 5GB of storage compared to Dropcam's limitless storage.

Dropcam competitor UGOlog is limited to taking a fast progression photo stills but can work with most USB Web cams. Screenshot by Josh Lowensohn/CNET

Despite lacking video, UGOlog has many of the same features as Dropcam, including a timeline that shows when motion was detected. It also has a viewer that can run in any browser. It also tops Dropcam in offering notifications via RSS whenever motion is detected, though as mentioned before this is something that's coming to Dropcam shortly.

Lastly, there's Logitech's WiLife system, which uses Homeplug technology to transfer data over a/c power outlets instead of through a wireless router. It has has things like motion detection and phone alerts, as well as an outdoor model that can work in adverse weather conditions. The main downside with this system when compared with the Dropcam, is that all the video streams go through a computer that needs to be in the same house, which means that if someone breaks into your house or business and steals your computer, they've taken the footage as well. It also means you can't run the cameras without a computer.

The verdict

Dropcam is a very capable service, though at $25 a month, it's on the pricey side if you want the plan that can save an entire month's worth of footage. One of its biggest weaknesses is that you have to buy the proprietary hardware, which is certainly quite capable, but is missing some things competing, high-end consumer Web cams have like tilt, pan, infrared, and audio receiving and broadcasting. And again, you're still unable to get motion notifications or easily download clips to a local storage device.

Still, the idea of having off-site storage of recorded footage has plenty of uses for consumers and businesses, both on a security and entertainment front. The real potential for Dropcam is in what the company can do with its Web based viewer and mobile software applications to take this platform to the next level of usefulness.

The good

  • Very easy to use Web interface
  • Requires no computer

  • Motion tracking

  • Mobile viewer for iPhone/iPod touch
  • Very little setup
  • Wireless
  • Month-to-month service

The bad

  • Cannot be used as Web cam for other programs
  • No audio recording

  • Can only work with one other camera
  • No notifications for motion events
  • Needs to be plugged into a power outlet at all times
  • High cost of monthly service for pro plan

Correction March 2 at 9:05 a.m. PST: Corrected recording times and wireless connectivity options on the Avaak Vue camera system.