Setting Up Your Own Camera

I often get queries asking for advice on how to set up a system like The HenCam, after all, doesn’t everyone want to be able to keep an eye on their chickens when away, and share the fun of their animals with others? However our system is not easy to replicate – it’s technically challenging (I know because my IT Guy/husband is frequently working on it), nor is it inexpensive to run. But we love having the HenCam, and really like sharing it with all of you out there.

I honestly have no clue how it all works, and I get all woozy when Steve tries to explain it to me, so the details have yet to sink in. Therefore, this post is written by my IT Guy – who deserves a big round of internet hand-clapping from everyone. (You’ll see why if you can wade all the way through.)

Here are some tips from my I.T. Guy and husband Steve:

There are various solutions depending on your budget and just exactly what you are trying to accomplish.

Web camera

The easiest (and cheapest) solution is to buy a web camera and attach it directly to your computer using a USB cable. These cameras are generally used for video conferencing and video instant messaging, but instead of pointing the camera at you, just point it out the window. Unfortunately the camera has to remain indoors and close to the computer (maximum length of a USB cable is 5 meters). Also typically you can only watch the video from that computer. For more information see this tutorial at HowStuffWorks.

Network camera

If the camera has to be far away from your computer then you need a network camera. These self-contained cameras are not attached to a computer, they just need power and a network connection (usually Ethernet, although some can also connect wirelessly with WiFi). These cameras have built-in webserver software, and a web browser on your computer is used to control the camera and view the video. If you intend to mount it outdoors then make sure your camera is weatherproof and can handle extreme temperatures.

If you want to view your camera from outside your home then you need an always-on Internet connection (e.g., cable modem or DSL). Your Internet service provider (ISP) must assign the camera a static IP address, or you can use dynamic DNS (DDNS) which most cameras support. One limitation is that network cameras allow only a small number of simultaneous users. The upstream bandwidth of your home Internet connection will also limit the number of viewers.

Supporting many users

If you want to allow many users to view your camera then consider a video hosting service that offers video streaming. Now your home Internet connection only has to upload a single stream from your camera up to the hosting service. The service takes care of the rest.

How The HenCam Works

We have four cameras. The outdoor HenCam is an ACTi E81 network camera. This camera is designed to be mounted overhead and looking down, so we mounted it at an angle to give a horizontal view along the wall:

IMG_3289

This camera also has an infrared illuminator that turns on at night, so you can watch all night long, even in the dark.

 

The InsideCam is a Toshiba IK-WB15A network camera. It is located in the corner of the Little Barn above the waterer. You can see the metal heater that keeps the water from freezing:

inside hencam Toshiba IK-WB15A network camera

 

GoatCam is also a Toshiba IK-WB15A. This one is well-protected as the goats love to climb!

on goatcam

 

BarnCam, located in the Big Barn, is a Toshiba IK-WB16A. We installed it at eye level when we got new baby chicks:

And it is still in a great location now that the Gems are all grown up.

Unfortunately it isn’t very chicken-proof, and ought to be replaced.

worn-out camera

 

The outdoor cameras are weatherproof and all can operate well below freezing temperatures. Image quality is excellent.

Originally the power and Ethernet cables ran unprotected to the cameras. However one day Candy the bunny started chewing on them, so now all the wiring is safely inside electrical conduit.

GoatCam automatically scans between three preset views. However there is a magnetic switch on the barn door, and when the door is closed, the outside view is skipped (otherwise you’d spend a minute looking at a closed door).

Ethernet cables run underground from the house basement out to the Little Barn, and from there to the Big Barn. Our server (an Apple Mac mini) runs custom PHP and Perl scripts that copy the image from the cameras and adds the time and temperature information. These scripts also automatically generate the nighttime “The animals are in bed” message. (We added this message because early HenCam viewers were mystified when all they saw was a black screen at night.)

Our Internet connection uses Comcast cable with 12Mbits/sec upload bandwidth. Images are continuously uploaded via FTP to our website host, and then JavaScript code running on your local machine pulls video out to the browser. The websites are hosted on a dedicated server at DreamHost.

The full-streaming view on the main HenCam and GoatCam uses ffmpeg on our local server to transcode the stream from the camera and add the watermark overlay and timestamp. Next the stream goes to Wowza Media Server running on our dedicated DreamHost machine. Finally Wowza streams to your browser, where JW Player picks the proper stream to display.

It’s been great fun putting all this together. Thanks for watching The HenCam!