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. 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  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 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 [].  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 [].

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 we have an opportunity of turning things around, contrary to traditional video surveillance.  With, 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 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, please contribute it below as a comment.

UVC Webcam: Creative Live! Cam Socialize HD

This post is about two things: “Universal Video Class” (UVC) USB Webcams, and my specific experiences with the “Creative Live! Cam Socialize HD” – a great camera with a completely unwieldy name.


Webcams and drivers: what horrible experiences most of us remember.  And if you’re running camera software on Linux the driver problems are only magnified.

UVC (“Universal Video Class” or “USB Video Class”) is a standard that describes capabilities of generic video devices like webcams.  UVC drivers are now built into Linux (Linux 2.6.26 on), Mac and Windows.  UVC webcams can be used directly with Linux and get mounted as /dev/video0 automatically.  No drivers to install!

UVC cameras have been around for quite a while.  (I have an old Aiptek pocket video recorder that can be used as a UVC webcam.)  It seems that more UVC cameras are showing up on the market, but they aren’t always clearly marked. If the box says support for “Linux Kernel 2.6” then it’s UVC.

I found an off-brand UVC webcam at OfficeMax for $20 and brought it to the lab to test with our embedded Linux video server.  Yuck.  The picture jittered occasionally as if there was a horizontal-sync problem.  You get what you pay for!

There is a site dedicated to UVC webcams.  It has not been a great resource for me, but it’s something.

Creative Live! Cam Socialize

Thus, it was with great pleasure I found a brand-name UVC webcam for a reasonable price.  I found the “Creative Live! Cam Socialize” at Fry’s for $69.  It’s HD with a 720p sensor.  It works great with Linux.  It has a rock steady picture, and automatically adjusts color and lightlevel.  I have been loving this little camera and use it as a stationary surveillance device: I don’t use it to chat.

This week that I found out that Creative had expanded the line and reduced the prices.  The names of the products have only gotten worse though.  Here they are.

  • Creative Live! Cam Socialize HD 1080
  • Creative Live! Cam Socialize AF
  • Creative Live! Cam Socialize Chat

The “HD 1080” is a true 1080p sensor, has stereo microphones and lists for $89.  The “AF” model has a 720p sensor.  The “AF” stands for “autofocus.” It lists for $69.  The “Chat” model also has a 720p sensor and it lists for $39.  I’ll probably be using a lot of the “Chat” models.

This announcement seems to have driven a price-drop on the current model at Amazon.  The old Socialize HD model is available for $37 today.

I just ordered two of them.

Catching Bad Guys

A few weeks ago there were a series of automobile break-ins in my neighborhood. The break-ins all occurred in the mid-morning. It appeared that only loose change or the stray GPS was taken.   The damage done to the cars cost more than any of the items stolen.

These types of crimes happen all the time in San Francisco. It only takes a few minutes to shatter a window and take a few items. Rarely is anyone around to see what happened. It’s even rarer that any evidence of the crime is collected.

As luck would have it, I’ve been running surveillance cameras looking out of my front window. One day, a break-in happened right next door. I checked the camera and hoped that I’d caught footage of the guy this time. As it turns out, I did!

In the first frame you see him walking toward the break-in location. (I’ve smudged his face to protect the innocent here.) In the second frame you can see him carrying a black bag that was later identified as one of the items stolen. (Note: The total amount of time elapsed is 4 minutes.)

We forwarded these photos to the police and the neighbors.  The police commented that it’s not often a clear picture of someone is captured. It’s also gotten the neighborhood fired up about paying attention to who is coming and going.

A couple of the neighbors have purchased DCS-920 cameras and have signed up for Sensr.  We are going to be building our own “Digital Neighborhood Watch” up here.  We’re all on the look out for this guy and will call the cops if he is spotted.  (He was spotted lurking around once, but still remains un-caught.)


I recently came across another site helping to catch Bad Guys.  It is called  It’s a video-sharing site for survillance footage of crimes.  Using it, you can look at crimes in your area and see if you can help catch the Bad Guys.  Of course, sometimes it’s entertaining to watch especially stupid crooks just for the fun of it.

I think is a nice complement to SensrSensr helps you manage your cameras and capture video and perhaps keep it private. Crookstupe is a place for sharing the video clips you want to share with a “Crimestoppers” audience. These two sites might make a great match.

Sensr is not CSI

It’s been interesting to gauge the expectations of some of the people introduced to Sensr and IP-surveillance.  A lot of people have watched a lot of episodes of CSI and expect infinite resolution and image enhancement techniques that don’t really exist yet!  No matter, the basic technology is here today and useful.

Sensr Time-Lapse Playback with the DVR View 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, added a “DVR” view that uses advanced HTML and Javascript to present a fluid view of an
image sequence.

As 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 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.

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.

Adam Beguelin recorded one of these DVR views as a quicktime movie. (  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?