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January 18, 2007 5:03 pm

Network cameras on watch for intruders – and family pets

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Network cameras and “nanny” cams have been around for several years but they have mostly been rather tricky to set up and often require professional installation. That is a pity because they can be useful in the home and office for monitoring everyday activities or security.

Network cameras are usually standalone devices hooked up to a home or office network using a wired or wireless connection. You can use them while travelling to check up on the home or office – or spy on the dogs while at work (our two hounds really do spend all day asleep on the sofa).

Hard-wired network cameras usually require running Ethernet cables, while the first wireless cameras – usually based on 802.11b WiFi standard – were often unreliable and delivered poor images.

Security features such as firewalls and NAT (network address translation) settings can also make it difficult to access cameras unless you are confident about adjusting port settings – something most PC owners wisely steer clear of.

But a new generation of low-cost network cameras has emerged that address most, if not all, of these problems. For the past few months, I have been testing the LukWerks family of network cameras from Utah-based WiLife (www.wilife.com )

Like most buyers, I started with a LukWerks “starter kit”, comprising an indoor, outdoor or “spy” camera and the associated PC CD-Rom software.

The indoor and outdoor starter kits cost $299, while the spy camera starter kit – built around a camera hidden inside a fully functioning digital clock – costs $329. Both are currently available only in the US. Add-on indoor or outdoor cameras, up to a maximum of five, cost $230 each.

I planned my home system around two internal cameras – one in the kitchen and one at the studio window pointing down the driveway – and an external camera that I added later. Setting up the system is easier than any other network camera or video surveillance system I have tried.

First you load the CD-Rom into a networked PC. The installation programme takes several minutes but is fully automatic.

While you are waiting you can begin setting up the network cameras, which communicate using HomePlug technology
over standard electrical wiring.

HomePlug enables the LukWerks cameras to be reliably connected into a home or office network without the need for extra wires and without the complexities and security issues related to wireless networking.

To set up a camera, select the mounting system you want to use, plug the power adapter into a socket and the other end of the ribbon cable into the camera body. A set of three LEDs (light emitting diodes) demonstrate the status of the camera.

The cameras themselves are quite compact. The outdoor camera comes in a weatherproof case, enabling it to be mounted outside to monitor gardens, gates driveways or entrances. Remember, though, you will also need to provide a power supply.

I have not tried the spy camera, which is obviously designed for clandestine monitoring – not something I need or would feel comfortable with. In contrast, LEDs on the other two camera models clearly show when they sense movement.

All the cameras work by capturing video images and streaming them back over the power network to a receiver unit that is plugged into a socket near the host PC that runs the LukWerks software. The set-up means that the PC needs to be left turned on.

The PC software displays images on a split preview or monitoring screen. Users can view one camera image on a full screen or multiple images at the same time.

Image quality is generally excellent in good lighting conditions, with good resolution and smooth movement at about 15 frames per second – about half that of film. Quality deteriorates in dim lighting but is still acceptable.

Although the software is easy to use, it is also quite sophisticated. It enables users to set recording “zones” within the camera’s field of view, so you can fine-tune the system to record a burglar coming through the French windows but ignore the cat walking across the floor.

My favourite feature is remote viewing, which enables users to sign into WiLife’s secure website and monitor their home system in real time from any internet-connected device. I can, for example, view my home from my BlackBerry.

More serious users will probably want to enable the e-mail or text message alert feature, which sends a message, image or video clip to any pre-determined recipient should the cameras detect any movement.

The system is unlikely to replace a full-blown, professionally installed set-up. But it is a capable and easy-to-use system that provides a high degree of comfort for someone looking for a basic video surveillance system at a reasonable price.

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