The technology that allows you to connect a video camera to the Web has been around for years. Some people use Web cams to monitor server rooms, while others use them for video-based chat sessions or just to show what’s going on somewhere in the world. I personally have a few Web cams placed in strategic places in my home so that I can verify that my two cats are being well cared for when my wife and I travel.

Until recently, Web cams have been relatively static devices. You can log in, do your surveillance or chat session, and log back out, and that’s about it. Some of the higher-end Web cams allow you to pan, tilt, and zoom, but even these Web cams lack any intelligence—they simply follow your instructions. What if you had a way to build some intelligence into your Web cams? A company called WebEyeAlert is doing just that. In this article, I’ll introduce you to WebEyeAlert and show you what makes their Web cams so special.

Equipment requirements

To use WebEyeAlert, you’ll need at least one Web cam, and a multiplexer if you’re planning to use more than one camera. You’ll also need either a four- or eight-port PCI-based Xpress video card, a Belkin Video Bus II analog-to-digital converter, and the appropriate cables to hook everything up. You can purchase the components I’ve mentioned directly from WebEyeAlert, but they are also available from many of the larger computer stores.

Camera connection
One option for customizing the product is camera selection. WebEyeAlert is designed to be compatible with just about any analog or digital camera, including those cameras that support pan, tilt, and zoom (PTZ). Presently, PTZ cameras from Pelco, Canon, and Sony are supported, but the company’s Web site states that they will custom-configure support for other brands upon request.

Multiplexing issues
Regardless of which type of camera you choose to use, the process for connecting the camera to the Web server is fairly similar. The biggest difference between the various types of hardware configurations is that installations of two or more cameras require a multiplexer. Unfortunately, there are some limitations associated with multiplexing.

First, the multiplexer must have serial port support. You can’t use switches because they lack the necessary serial port. Second, when a bank of cameras is multiplexed together, the recorded images are based on the multiplexer’s mode. For example, if the multiplexer is in quad mode (displaying up to four cameras simultaneously), then the server will record video in quad mode rather than recording a separate video track for each individual camera. In spite of this, the WebEyeAlert Web site hints that there may be ways to get around these limitations, such as possibly using multiple servers.

The WebEyeAlert software currently supports Pelco, ATV, Robot, and Javelin multiplexers, but the WebEyeAlert site states that, as with PTZ cameras, the software can be adapted to additional brands upon request. The multiplexer connects to the PC via a standard RCA cable. The cable attaches to a Belkin Video Bus II analog-to-digital converter.

How it works
Once all of the hardware is hooked up, the computer will control all of the cameras through the serial cable link to the multiplexer. Video signals from the cameras are then passed through the multiplexer to the analog-to-digital converter and then through the computer’s USB port to the video card. As I mentioned, you’ll need either a four- or eight-port PCI-based Xpress video card.

Motion detection
One of the more interesting aspects of WebEyeAlert is that it integrates motion detection into a Web cam. You can configure your cameras to watch for motion during specific times of the day. If a Web cam senses motion, the Web server will compile a video clip of the motion in AVI format. You can also configure the server to include five to ten seconds of video before the motion begins to make sure you don’t miss anything.

What happens next is up to you. You can configure the software to alert you to intrusion by pager, fax, e-mail, or any combination of the above. If the intrusion comes via e-mail or fax, a still image from the detected motion is attached to the message.

Constant recording mode
While motion detection is certainly a handy feature to have, sometimes you may simply want to record video of an area on a constant basis. For example, if you implemented a security camera in a store to watch for shoplifters, you wouldn’t want the camera to use motion detection because you’d probably have constant motion in the area under surveillance. Fortunately, the WebEyeAlert software allows you to set each camera to either motion detection mode or constant recording mode.

Limitations and administration
As you can imagine, there are some issues to consider when you’re constantly recording digital video, especially from multiple sources. One issue is hard disk space. The WebEyeAlert software can be a real disk space hog. The actual amount of disk space consumed depends on how many cameras are hooked up, how much activity is occurring within an area, the recording mode, image resolution, and the number of frames per second. Typically, this translates to 1-2 GB per camera per day in most environments, though this number can vary widely. An example on the WebEyeAlert Web site states that in a busy environment, such as a school, a 16-camera system that’s set to record three frames per second will fill up a 160-GB hard disk in about seven days.

When a hard disk does fill up, the WebEyeAlert software relies on circular logging. This means that the newer data simply overwrites the oldest data. If you need to export data before it’s overwritten, you can export it to a variety of formats, such as CD, DVD, or VHS tape.

The other issue when dealing with constant recording is information management. As video is recorded, it’s indexed by date, time, and camera. A Web interface allows you to go to a specific time period and look at a specific camera (or a specific bank of cameras if you’re using multiplexers). You don’t need any special software on the client workstation beyond an up-to-date version of Internet Explorer or Netscape.

You can use the actual Web server to assign various permissions to each camera or bank of cameras on a per-user basis. The administrator of the system can make a camera public, shared, or private. Up to three users can access the system at a given time. Access is password protected and SSL encrypted. In addition, users with the necessary permissions can view live video from the cameras and even work the pan, tilt, and zoom controls directly through the Web interface.

The cameras are typically connected to workstation PCs, which in turn are connected to the Web server. You can either subscribe to WebEyeAlert’s own Web server or host the site yourself. If you choose to host your own Web site, it’s recommended that you have an always-on broadband connection, such as a DSL or T-1 line. You’ll also have to make sure that you have an additional phone line available should you want to use the fax or pager service.

A flexible surveillance solution
What impressed me the most about the WebEyeAlert system is the product’s flexibility. You can configure it in many different ways and custom-tailor it to fit organizations of any size.