Benign Surveillance – a Friendly Eye

What if you could look at any public place, anywhere in the world, from your home.  What if there was a network of shared cameras, available for your use.  Would you look at a scenic vista over San Carlos?  Would you see who is arriving at Ritual Coffee in the Mission?  Would you look to see if the sun was shining out at Lands End?

What would you call the activity that you’re doing?

  • Is it surveillance?
  • Is it peeping?
  • It is watching?
  • Are you a voyeur?

None of these words describe very well the benign use of internet cameras to take a look at something somewhere else.  Sensr.net provides such a service and our tag line is simply “Watch your Stuff!”  I think this is a pretty good summary of what people are currently doing with Sensr.net.  They’re also doing things like sharing their camera views and posting clips to Twitter and Facebook.

Often, when I’m talking to people about Sensr.net and internet cameras, I receive a partially hostile response.  People associate cameras with centralized authority or control.  Even the word “surveillance” implies watching someone because they are suspect [http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/surveillance].  People worry about their privacy.  The meme that makes us worry about being watched seems pretty deeply ingrained in our society.  I’ve wondered where that comes from.

Watching has long been used as a form of control.  In the 18th century, a philosopher named Jeremy Bentham designed a type of prison called the Panopticon.  The word combines the roots for “observer” (-opticon) with “all” (pan-).  In this prison, an observer could see everyone no matter where they were.  The idea was that if no one knew when they were being watched or when they weren’t all prisoners would behave.  Closed-Circuit Television (CCTV) is sometimes considered a modern incarnation of the Panopticon.  But in at least some studies it’s been shown that all this watching doesn’t really cut crime rates [http://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/news/2008/05/problems-with-the-panopticon-uks-cctv-doesnt-cut-crime.ars].

So what happens when remote cameras simply become an adjunct to the other ways we perceive our environment?  Then internet cameras simply become tools for viewing.  One of my co-founders noted that perhaps the feeling of invasion stems from the fact that there are two different groups of people: the watchers and the watched.

With Sensr.net we have an opportunity of turning things around, contrary to traditional video surveillance.  With Sensr.net, the watchers and the watched can be part of the same social network. [YB 2010]

I really like this idea, but then I come back to the problem that generated this blog post: what is a good word to describe the service that Sensr.net is providing?  I don’t have one yet, so I might have to invent my own.  How about a word with Latin roots: “amicus-oculus” – a friendly eye!  Not very sexy, but not scary either.

If you’re reading this and you have a good suggestion for a word or phrase we can use to describe Sensr.net, please contribute it below as a comment.

Sensr Time-Lapse Playback with the DVR View

Sensr.net has been collecting vast amounts of image data from lots of cameras for well over a year now.  Until now, the best way to search and view the images has been with a grid-based view based on a metaphor of a photo gallery.  Recently, Sensr.net added a “DVR” view that uses advanced HTML and Javascript to present a fluid view of an
image sequence.

As Sensr.net receives image streams it applies sophisticated motion-detection algorithms to suppress redundant or irrelevant images.  This helps users during playback by allowing the images from an entire hour to be reviewed in only minutes.  It’s also interesting (and sometimes amusing) to see the shots that Sensr.net captures.

One of our users has been capturing morning walks with her dog using an iPhone.  (See the Lifecasting article for a HOWTO if you’d like to do this yourself.)  Watching what she saw as a slideshow or by single-stepping through the frames using the “Next” and “Prev” buttons is an interesting way to share her experiences!  Follow the link to try it out yourself.

http://sensr.net/zoomgallery/351/dvr.html?interval=hour&reft=1278426317&idx=16

I captured a street scene from a restaurant window while on my annual trip to Provincetown.  (also via iPhone.)  Take a look below.  This sequence is amusing when played with the “PLAY” button.  This one takes a while to load, so you may have to wait a little bit.

http://sensr.net/zoomgallery/345/dvr.html?interval=hour&reft=1278089700&idx=10

Adam Beguelin recorded one of these DVR views as a quicktime movie. (http://www.beguelin.com/2010/07/quicktime-screen-recording.html)  He posted it to Youtube too.  Pretty cool to watch.

These views are less-than full-motion video – they capture a experiences as images sequences that can be played back faster than realtime, or frozen as photos.  I find the time-lapse sequences to be extremely engaging in a way that is different from video.  What do you think?

EvoCam external USB Camera on OSX to Sensr

In previous posts, I’ve described how to set up a DCS-920 IP-Camera and an iPhone to upload images to Sensr.net using FTP.  These articles have been helpful and fun for a number of people.  In this post I’m going to show how to use a Mac, an external USB Camera and a program called EvoCam to upload image streams to Sensr.net.

This article is divided into the following three large sections:

  1. Install Macam to support USB webcams on OSX
  2. Create a new camera on Sensr.net
  3. Install and configure EvoCam to upload image streams.

Macam: USB webcam support for Mac OSX

The Mac works well with built-in iSight cameras but doesn’t easily handle external USB cameras, which are cheap and widely available.  I find an external camera useful because I can point it at something I want to record and still use the built-in iSight for video chats.  Having an external camera with a long cord and a tripod allows me to record all sorts of things.

Macs don’t recognize external USB cameras, however.  This is where a little piece of software called “Macam” comes in:

This great piece of free software adds USB camera support to Mac OSX.  Download it and install it as directed.  It consists of two parts: a driver and an application.  Make sure you install both.

Now, plug in your external USB camera and start up the Macam application.  If your installation is successful, you will see a screen like the following.

Press the “PLAY” button (“>”) to see if your camera is working.  You should see a large preview image from your camera.  If you are not happy with the image quality, open up the settings drawer and fiddle with the settings.  I have found the settings sliders to be somewhat unpredictable and overly responsive, but they do work.  If you have more than one external USB camera (which could be cool!), Macam has a “Next Camera” button you can use to find the camera you want.

We are now done with the Macam application.  Please make sure you QUIT Macam so that it releases the camera for other software to use.  Later steps in this article require that the Macam is shut-down.

At this point you have successfully installed Macam and confirmed that it works with your camera.  You now know that you can get video out of your USB camera and into your Mac.  Now we’re going to work on getting the video out of your Mac on onto the internet at Sensr.net.

Set up a new Camera on Sensr

You’ll need to create a new camera on Sensr.net and get the FTP credentials.  I’ve written about how to do this before (see “Setting up Sensr to monitor a DCS-920 Camera”  or “Mobile Lifecasting using an iPhone and Sensr.”)

The important bits of information you’ll need are:

  1. the FTP server,
  2. the FTP Username, and
  3. the FTP Password.

These will be entered into EvoCam later.  For reference, I’ve shown the page displaying the “FTP Settings” given when you add a new camera.

"FTP Settings" on Activate Camera Page

EvoCam

EvoCam is webcam software for Mac OSX.  It does a lot of things: we will be using its FTP features to load image streams to Sensr.net. as an FTP uploader. You can get EvoCam here:

EvoCam has a 15-day evaluation period, so you can try all of this out without paying anything.  It’s a nice piece of software and I think it is reasonably priced.

Now, start up EvoCam.  It will probably default to showing your built-in iSight camera.  The first step is to configure EvoCam to use your USB camera.  To do this open up the menu item “Options >> Video Input” and select the “Source” tab.  On my computer, EvoCam found my built-in iSight and the external USB camera from Macam.  Mine was named “macam #0: Aiptek Pocket DV 4100M.”  Make sure you can select your external camera.

For reference, I’ve included screenshots of the other two tabs in the “Video Options” panel.  I’ve left the settings as their default values.

We are going to set up EvoCam to upload images to Sensr.net using FTP. Open up the “settings” panel below the preview (by clicking on the little triangle).  The first thing we have to configure is the FTP server.  This is where the FTP credentials from Sensr.net will be entered.

Configure the server type as “FTP Server”.  In the location, you must type an FTP URL indicating the Sensr server.  An FTP URL looks like this

 ftp://SENSRSERVER/evocam.jpg

where the SENSRSERVER is the server name given to you by Sensr.net. The filename I chose here is “evocam.jpg”.  You should use “evocam.jpg” too.

The information you should put in the Username field is the one given to you by Sensr.net: it is a value like “camXXX”.  The password you should enter is the FTP password from Sensr.net.

Before we leave server configuration, we are going to open up the “Advanced” tab and set a few advanced settings for FTP.  See the panel below.  I suggest checking the “Stay Connected” option.  This lets EvoCam re-use the same connection for all of its images, helping to streamline performance.

Now lets move on to the Refresh tab.  This is where we set how often the image is refreshed and what is done with it.  You can choose to upload images continuously or only when motion is detected.  (I like to upload continuously.)  Make sure “Upload image to server” is checked!

And just for reference, here is a screenshot of the “Status” tab.  I find this useful when setting up EvoCam.  It shows you the network operations it is performing as it is doing them.  If you are having trouble, this may be helpful for debugging.

You can shorten the EvoCam window when you are all done by toggling the settings closed.  Next time EvoCam starts up it should remember your settings and begin uploading immediately.

At this point, you are done!  EvoCam is uploading images to Sensr.net from your external USB Webcam.  Go to http://sensr.net and find your camera to see that images are uploading.  A good way to check that it is all working is to use the “View Live Stream” feature to see your camera live as re-broadcast from Sensr.net.

Have fun!

Mobile Lifecasting using an iPhone and Sensr

Lifecasting is the act of broadcasting the events of ones life as they are experienced.  Lifecasts are usually real-time, and the prevalence of webcams and wireless Internet has made it possible for almost anyone to broadcast what they are doing as they are doing it.  Mobile wireless devices with Internet connectivity have opened up entirely new possibilities, making it possible to catch interesting events as they are happening — where they are happening.  Un-tethering from a laptop is incredibly liberating and allows you to share the action from where you are seeing it.

Sensr.net is a versatile service for sharing and recording image streams.  Here we focus on sharing and recording from an iPhone.

This post describes how to use Sensr.net with an iPhone App called “PhoneCam” that can transmit a continuous stream of photos to Sensr.net‘s servers.  PhoneCam is available for $2.99 from the iTunes store.  Using the iPhone means it’s possible to broadcast from almost anywhere there is WiFi or 3G.  You can even broadcast while you’re on the move.

More information about PhoneCam is available from the developer here: http://www.tidalpool.ca/phonecam/index.html.

In brief, PhoneCam periodically takes a picture with your iPhone camera and uploads it to an FTP site.  This works perfectly with Sensr.net!

The rest of this post takes you through the necessary steps of configuring Sensr.net and your iPhone to enable Lifecasting on the go.  I’ve included a lot of screenshots to help you set up your Sensr account and to adjust all the settings on PhoneCam.

Add a New Camera to your Sensr Account

Login to Sensr using your Facebook username and password.  Select the “My Cameras” page.  Here you will see thumbnails of the latest images from your existing cameras.

To add a new camera to your account, click on the big green button labeled “Add New Camera.”  This will allocate a new Camera on the Sensr servers.

Tell Sensr About your Camera

On the “Camera Info” page you should fill in the fields marked with red arrows.  Give your camera a meaningful name.  Set the Timezone of your Camera. (Note: the layout of this page changed in Sept 2010.) Click on the big green “Add Camera” button at the bottom of the page to save these settings for your new Sensr Camera.

Write down your Sensr FTP Credentials

You should now be on the “Activate Camera” step shown below. Sensr.net has allocated an FTP account for your camera. The server name, username and password constitute the FTP credentials for this account.  Write yours down for later.  These are the settings that we must give to PhoneCam so that it can talk to Sensr.net.

In the example of this post, the FTP credentials are as follows:

  • FTP Server: f3.sensr.net
  • Username: cam345
  • Password: xg1qts3v4t

After you have written down these values, click on the “Take me to my camera!” button.  You will then be on the Gallery view of your camera.  There won’t be any images yet in your gallery because it is a new camera.

Configure PhoneCam

Now it is time to configure your iPhone for image uploading to Sensr.net.  You should have already installed PhoneCam on your iPhone by using the Apple App store.  When you open it up for the first time, you should go to the “Settings” page by clicking on the lowercase italic “i” at thetop-right of the screen.

PhoneCam Servers

You will be adding a new server to the PhoneCam settings first. Notice the “Server” field at the top.  Click on the right of this line to go to the Server Settings page.  (In the screenshot below, I have already added the server I called “Lifecast.”  You won’t have this yet.)


Add a new Server

To add a new Server, click on the “Edit” tab at the top-right.

From there you will be able to select adding a new server by clicking on the “+” that appears at the top-left of the page.

Edit Server

We are finally at the page where the FTP credentials from the Sensr.net site can be entered into the PhoneCam.

* Select a meaningful name for your server.  This is for your own use.  I called my primary Sensr.net upload “Lifecast” for this example.
* For the “Host” field, enter the “FTP Server” name assigned by Sensr.net.
* Ensure that the “Path” remains empty.
* For the “Username” field, enter the “Username” from Sensr.net.
* For the “Password” field, enter the “Password” from Sensr.net.

When you are done, the page should look like this.  Go back to the Servers list by clicking the “Server” button at the top-left.

On the page that follows, click the “Done” button.  Lastly, make sure your new server has a “check-mark” next to it.  This selects which server PhoneCam uploads to.  When you have, click on the “Settings” button to get out of server configuration.

Configure Image Name and Refresh Frequency

There are a few last steps in setting up your PhoneCam.

  • Give a “File Name” for the uploaded image: use “phonecam.jpg”
  • Select an update interval for how often to upload.  I like to upload continuously when PhoneCam is on, or perhaps at an interval of 5 or 10 seconds.
  • Select “Replace Images: OFF.”  This causes PhoneCam to give each uploaded image a new filename.  This option works best with Sensr.net.

The other parameters should be left as their default values.  Here is what I use.

  • Type: JPEG
  • Quality: 80%
  • Size: 320×240

And also

  • Save TO Album: OFF
  • Title: none
  • Detail: none
  • Date/Time: OFF
  • Location: OFF

Lifecast your Life using PhoneCam and Sensr.net

At this point, you should be ready to go!  Go back to the PhoneCam home page and press the Big Red Dot to start recording images.  As each image is taken, you should see status messages at the bottom of the screen counting the number of images taken and the number of successful uploads.

Lifecasting on-the-go!

Now, when something interesting is happening in your life, you can add it to your Lifecast.  Just get out your iPhone, start up PhoneCam and press the “Big Red Dot” to start recording into the *cloud*. Sensr.net is always watching for your broadcasts and recording your data.  You can even share your images on Facebook.  (That will be the subject of another post.)

Of course, the challenge remains to “be interesting.”  Keep me posted with what you find.