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Fancy a turn as Big Brother? A new generation of network cameras lets you keep an eye on your property and valuables from just about anywhere with an Internet connection



Back in 1991 a small group of thirsty researchers at the University of Cambridge Computer Laboratory connected a video camera to their computer network. It allowed members of the faculty to keep watch on the communal coffee machine, to let them know when a fresh pot was brewing. ‘Xcoffee’ went live on the Internet in November 1993 rapidly achieving cult status, making it the world’s first webcam and the forerunner of a new breed of remote viewing devices called network cameras.


A network camera or netcam is no different to any other sort of webcam or closed circuit TV (CCTV) system for that matter, it is simply a means of sending live video images or frequently updated still pictures to a monitor screen at remote location. The crucial difference between a netcam and a webcam is that there’s no direct connection to a computer. Instead, what amounts to a PC -- usually running a version of the Linux operating system -- is built into the camera, turning it into a dedicated video ‘server’, with its own communications software and unique Internet Protocol (IP) address. Most network cameras are self-contained devices but it’s also possible to convert an ordinary analogue video camera into a netcam by connecting it to a box of tricks called video server.


The point is a network camera is effectively a website and the images it contains, from the camera, can be accessed and viewed on any PC connected to the network (or the Internet, if the network is linked to the web) using standard browser software. That also means pictures can be seen on laptops, PDAs and even the latest mobile phones, as long as they have an Internet connection.


Until recently netcams have mostly been used for high-minded purposes like remote surveillance of commercial and industrial premises but now there’s a new generation of low-cost models coming on to the market. This opens up a wealth of new and interesting applications, from keeping watch on your holiday home in the Algarve to allowing concerned parents to see little Johnny is safe and sound at the local playschool on their office PCs and mobile phones.


Since there is a two-way connection between the netcam and the remote browser or viewer it’s possible to send and receive telemetry signals, to control a motorised pan/tilt platform and zoom lens (PTZ), adjust the camera’s exposure settings, send alarm signals and even audio, picked up by a microphone on the front of the camera. Software in the camera or the remote viewer can also be programmed to respond to movement and trigger an alarm or instruct the PC to record the images. The controls for a PTZ camera and alarm functions can be easily incorporated into a standard web browser page though more advanced systems tend to use specially written viewer software, with multi camera display facilities and more sophisticated recording and alarm functions. 


Most netcams are equipped with a standard Ethernet port for a quick connection to a local area network (LAN) or network enabled PC and normally they require little in the way of configuration. It’s possible to do away with cables altogether and several models use a wireless (WiFi) connection between the camera and the network. On a network or high-speed Internet connection refresh rates of up to 30 frames per second (fps) are possible though 15 fps is more typical and live video looks a little jerky but depending on the capabilities of the camera picture quality can be very good indeed. Resolution is typically 640 x 480 pixels, which is sufficient for most surveillance duties and because the images are digitally processed, distance is not an issue; they will look as just as sharp if you are within a few feet of the camera, or viewing them from hundreds or even thousands of miles away.


Netcams are still a work in progress and most of the hardware and software available right now is still geared towards the commercial security and surveillance sector. Nevertheless prices are falling quickly and systems targeted at the consumer market have been on sale in the US for the past year and are now starting to appear in the UK. From coffee pots to criminals, remote surveillance has come a long way and if you’ve got something of value that you want to keep an eye on, distance is no longer an object.





Axis Communications (http://www.axis.com/uk/index.htm) is one of the pioneers of network video, netcams and video servers. Most of its products are now available in the UK, includes the top of the range 2420 series camera/server, which is currently selling for just under £1000 and the swish looking 2100 fixed camera, which costs just under £370



D-Link, (http://www.dlink.co.uk/), is one of the leading players in computer networking and it has one wireless netcam in its UK range. The DCS-1000, which you can pick up through online dealers for around £450, uses the standard 802.11b (WiFi) protocol to communicate with wireless Ethernet systems. Features include timed ‘snapshots’, email notification and optional motion detection.



JVC’s ‘V-Networks’ product range comprises six cameras and specially written browser software. Designed mainly for serious security and surveillance applications the entry-level VN-C1U compact static camera costs around £470 whilst the VN-C30U, high end ceiling mounted PTZ ‘dome’ camera can be all yours for just £1640. JVC Professional’s website can be found at: http://www.jvcpro.co.uk/frames-1.htm



Panasonic has a range of half a dozen netcams on sale in the US costing from £200, for a basic fixed lens model whilst wireless models with simple pan/tilt mechanisms sell for around £430, more details can be found at:




Last year in the US and Japan Sony introduced the SNC-VL10P, a stylish-looking netcam with a number of advanced features. It’s available online from US dealers for around £550, no news yet of a UK price, though Sony Europe (http://www.sonybiz.net/) is currently marketing a stand-alone video servers (SNT-V304), which is sold through security and surveillance dealers for around £1116.



Times Square New York




Axis PTZ demonstration camera (somewhere in Canada…)



Microjack Office (US netcam dealer), multi camera views



Main Street Somerville New Jersey




Downtown Manhattan (Sony PTZ camera demo)





Ó R. Maybury 2003, 0402




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