Serve Up Webcam Images Without a PC

If you think reality-based TV shows like Cops or The Real World mark the pinnacle of our voyeuristic potential, think again. A humble Webcam, such as the Axis 2100 Camera Server, provides an even better window into the reality of daily life--set it on a conference-room table, point it out the window, or better yet, aim it at yourself.

Unlike most standard Webcams, the Axis 2100 doesn't require a computer to capture images and display them on the Internet: This $499, 6-by-4-by-1.5-inch device contains a Linux-based server chip. It does, however, require a standard power outlet or 12V DC battery power (you'll need an optional plug for the latter), as well as a local area network connection or a modem.

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For specialized applications you can replace the included manual-focus lens with any lens designed for security cameras, but it must have a C or CS fitting--the standard, threaded connector used to attach replaceable lenses to security cameras. The included lightweight plastic stand tends to get dragged around when the camera cables are stretched, but it has screw-holes so it can be secured to a wall or platform for semipermanent installation. If you plan to move the camera around a lot or keep it on your desk (where you won't want to drill holes), a small, sturdy tabletop tripod, such as the Manfrotto 3007 with adjustable head (available at specialty camera stores for under $100), is a good investment.

Getting Started

The Axis camera takes about 5 minutes to set up, and you can configure it easily. While the camera doesn't require a PC for image processing, you will need a PC to install and run a tiny applet to assign the camera an Internet protocol address. Once you've done that, however, you can delete the software from your system. Thereafter, you can use any Web browser to log on to the camera's built-in server and adjust image size, brightness, and compression level, as well as Internet preferences.

You'll also need to specify whether you want the camera to take regular snapshots or to take images only when it detects movement in the frame. (A standard digital I/O connector in the back of the camera also allows it to be triggered into action by external motion sensors or other alarm system equipment.) Of course, if you set the camera to take lots of pictures, you may be asking it to push through big chunks of data, perhaps causing delays on slow dial-up connections. If that's a problem, you can set the camera to compress 320-by-240 images so that they're only 3KB each, but the image quality will suffer. A more acceptable compromise for quicker connections is to use medium compression and 640-by-480 images, which weigh in at 13KB each. (The lowest compression level at 640 by 480 yields good-looking output, but each image will take up a hefty 250KB.)

The camera's built-in server software gives you two options for displaying images. The first option is to display the images on Web pages generated by the camera itself. The camera's internal firmware contains some rudimentary template pages, so all you need to do is enter the camera's IP address to view images. As an alternative, you can instruct the server to e-mail its images to an account or upload images to the Web server of your choice. If you choose the latter option, you'll need to configure the FTP settings in the camera's preferences so that it uploads your images to a directory on your Web host.

Once you've set up your window to the world, visitors can view your video stream with any version 4.x or later browser. However, visitors may need to download an ActiveX control the first time they connect to the site.

The camera produces better-than-average images for a Web camera, but nowhere near the resolution of a movie camera. For example, if you set the camera to regularly upload medium-quality images to a Web server, expect no more than about one to two frames per second--the equivalent of a high-speed slide show.

In our informal testing, we also explored an unusual application for the camera, making it a part of a crude videoconferencing system. We set up the camera to record a meeting in our San Francisco office and asked editors in Boston to watch. While they found it fascinating to watch the meeting through the window of a camera, the camera didn't capture or transmit audio, so we had to handle verbal communications by telephone. But the absence of audio didn't prevent dozens of staffers from tuning in--there were so many that the demand overloaded the camera's capacity. Axis says the camera can serve ten viewers at one time.

While the internal server's tiny capacity may put a damper on your plans to broadcast your own version of The Real World, it's not a major drawback if you plan to use the Axis camera for internal security or for monitoring situations in which only one or two users would be connected at any given time. If you need more server capacity, you can use the FTP option to upload images to a host server. That server's capacity will then determine the maximum number of viewers.

No matter the application--home or office security, meetings, or just innocent voyeurism--the Axis 2100 Camera Server provides an easy, painless window of presence wherever you point the lens.

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