Dropcam's new $199 Pro model aims to be the smart home hub

You and I might see flashy new Web-cam hardware, but the maker sees the centerpiece of the connected smart home.

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
6 min read
The new Dropcam Pro (right) next to last year's model. Josh Lowensohn/CNET

SAN FRANCISCO -- Greg Duffy is beaming.

The 27-year-old CEO of Dropcam, the maker of a video camera that streams to the Internet 24 hours a day, is holding a shrink-wrapped box containing the next major version of that device.

On it is a simple front and side shot of the all-black camera on a white background. On the back of the box are the words "Designed by Dropcam in California. Assembled in China." It's a not-so-subtle homage to Apple. In fact, from across the room, the camera could be mistaken for an Apple product.

To the untrained eye the camera looks like the one the company began shipping last year -- but black in color and a bit thicker. As if channeling Apple some more, Duffy smiles and says not to let looks deceive me. "It looks the same outside, but everything has changed on the inside," he says.

Despite the name, the $199 Dropcam Pro is not a product aimed at taking over the enterprise. Instead, it's a new, top-of-the-line camera that can view 20 percent more of its surroundings than its predecessor -- and can do it with a sharper image, thanks to an all-glass lens.

That same lens, which was developed in house, also boasts a new "enhance" feature that comes close to sharpening up video detail like you see in movies and TV shows. (Picture some geeky engineer clicking his mouse to make an unreadable license plate come into focus, which leads to the bad guys' inevitable capture.)

To show off the feature, Duffy pulls up a decidedly less crime-ridden live video feed of the couch in the company's lobby here. He pinches the screen to zoom in on a copy of Bloomberg Businessweek that's on the table and then taps a small magic wand icon on the glowing screen of an iPad running Dropcam's app. A second later it fizzles into near-perfect clarity.

A fuzzy blob turns into a bookshelf of boardgames (Click to see in native resolution.)
A fuzzy blob turns into a bookshelf of boardgames (Click to see in native resolution.) Josh Lowensohn/CNET

It's a wow feature, and one that Duffy hopes will get existing customers to spend another $200, and entice new buyers alike. It's also an alternative response to one of the most asked-for features by Dropcam buyers -- the option to pan and zoom around the room.

Yet, instead of adding motors and a gear system, the company made the image clearer and sharper with a mix of hardware and software. According to Duffy, adding motors and a gear system to achieve the effect just adds extra costs and can end up shortening a product's lifespan.

"You have to look beyond what people are asking for and what functionality they actually want," Duffy says. "We took from that that they want more detail from anything they have in a room."

Getting that extra clarity was not easy. The new camera takes up about 10 percent more bandwidth than its predecessor. That's a far cry to where the company was when it was in the initial stages of testing, Duffy says. Earlier, the Pro was using up three to four times more bandwidth, something that was resolved with compression. That's been a constant push at the company, where three people work solely on squeezing better video into a smaller amount of space.

"Internet providers have not innovated at all, so we had to do it without a commensurate increase in video," Duffy says.

Last year's model (left) next to this year's model and its new lens.
Last year's model (left) next to this year's model and its new lens. Dropcam

The hub at home
To you and me, the new Pro model might look like a jet-black paint job on last year's HD model with some better specs, but to Dropcam it's a Trojan horse that could unify and harmonize the onslaught of smart appliances. That's thanks to the addition of Bluetooth low energy (LE) and a new API that lets other companies tap into the Dropcam Pro's Wi-Fi connection and ferry information through Dropcam's existing app and notification service.

"Anything that can talk to your iPhone [or Android device] over Bluetooth LE is fair game for Dropcam Pro," Duffy says. "We want to integrate Dropcam with existing sensors."

That scenario could work out to display things like your home's temperature using a nearby smart thermostat, or allow you to flip your lights on and off in a room -- all through Dropcam's Web and mobile viewing tools. Perhaps one day it could be triggered to adjust home gadget settings when it detects motion, such as a person leaving or returning to the house.

For now, that vision is limited to a "if you build it they will come" type of scenario, and Dropcam's not alone. A similar such wireless networking specification made by the ZigBee Alliance, which has been around for nearly a decade, enables home-related devices to exchange data. Moreover, Nest, which makes a smart thermostat and now a smoke detector, also announced plans for a developer API last month, which could turn the Nest platform into more of a hub. In Dropcam's case, Duffy hopes its new platform will attract makers of connected security systems, light switches, and climate controls to tap into its 24/7 home presence and now fat bandwidth, thanks to the Pro's new dual-band Wi-Fi.

Watch this: Dropcam Pro: New $199 HD wireless camera ups the image quality

Cloud-powered eyeballs
Paving the road for extra types of utilities is a new set of computer vision technologies that can identify behaviors and events. This allows users to adjust what kind of alerts they want to get in real time or to see their online recording history from the past week or month.

"The first 24 hours after you plug it in, it's in learning mode," Duffy says. "It's looking at patterns of activity, not just regions. It's analyzing paths of objects and then it tries to separate it out to specific categories."

That may sound wildly creepy to some, but Duffy stresses that the video is anonymous when it's processed through the company's servers. And in return, the system promises to help cut down some of the unnecessary notifications people get from the motion alerts system. One example: A camera facing an outdoor area with some trees can learn that when the trees move, it's a frequent pattern that can be ignored.

Paired with the new Bluetooth features, Dropcam's system could add granularity, turning a simple motion alert into a notification that someone has entered the home and which door the person used. That system isn't quite ready for prime time. The company has been working on it for the past two years and plans to introduce it in early 2014.

Last year's HD model (left) next to the thicker Pro (right).
Last year's HD model (left) next to the thicker Pro. Josh Lowensohn/CNET

What's next
While the Pro model may open the company to new buyers and fulfill some popular user requests, it's still limited to the indoors.

That hasn't stopped some Dropcam owners from cobbling together weatherproof housing solutions, including one owner of a public Dropcam feed pointed at Linda Mar Beach in Pacifica, Calif., just 20 minutes from the company's office. The owner crafted a custom acrylic box with a hole for the camera opening. The hole is sealed shut with silicone rubber. Other fan-made contraptions have been put together using PVC pipes and moisture-absorbing packets.

Duffy says he loves that people are doing this, but he has concerns about the longevity of these projects -- and about the outdoor products from other companies.

"Our standard is a decade. No camera we've seen has met that standard," Duffy says. "It has to be able to handle a Northeast winter or Texas heat."

In the meantime, Duffy reiterates that the company's goal has been to expand what it can do with existing hardware, even the older models.

"We never want to be a company that makes you upgrade your stuff," he says. "Your [2010] Dropcam Echo still works. And we still have users on that, believe it or not."

Funny words from a guy with his hands on the very new thing he's hoping you'll buy.